The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been, at best, unclear. Government policy has been widely considered ambiguous, which has trickled down into university guidance. Durham University has fallen into the same trap as the government, giving out unclear instructions and uneven punishments to students. Torn between wanting to make the most of their university experience or following the government rules to “Stay at Home”, students have been treated both without empathy and without clear guidance by those at national and university level. Students may well have misinterpreted guidelines, in some cases deliberately, but the root of the problem is the inconsistency of Durham’s Covid-19 policy.
On 5th January 2021, all Durham University students received an email stating “you should not travel back to your term-time address”, in line with government guidance to “stay where you are”. On its own, this presented a strong message to students, with the necessary caveat that you could travel to Durham if “it is absolutely necessary”. This was added for anyone living in an environment detrimental to their mental or physical health, for example, victims of domestic abuse or for LGBT+ students who could not be themselves at home. However, dig down into the particularities of language, and the inconsistencies and ambiguities of Durham’s policy become clear.
Firstly, ‘should’ does not mean ‘must’. It is a term symbolic of the ambiguity that plagues the University’s Covid-19 guidelines. Secondly, define “absolutely necessary”. Many students returned as they felt that they work more efficiently in Durham than at home, is that “absolutely necessary”? One could argue that it is not, but the University cannot blame students for interpreting it as such, especially given Durham’s academic pressure. As referenced above, the email in question was sent on 5th January. Arguably this was out of the University’s control, but it meant that many students had already returned to Durham in preparation for Epiphany Term. In the same style as the government, the University was both lacklustre and late in implementing its Covid-19 policy.
An equally confusing choice followed up the vagueness of their initial message on opening campus. Universities were allowed to stay open for future key worker courses, of which Durham only offers one, yet the most-used areas of campus remained open. Both the Bill Bryson Library and the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) were allowed to open for study sessions, as they were before the Christmas break. It would be unfair to criticise the University for this decision, as it aimed to improve the university experience of those escaping toxic homelives. However, it provided an incentive for other students to return.
College facilities, to varying degrees, also remain open. Students in some colleges can use libraries or sports facilities without presenting a negative Lateral Flow Test (LFT), something which may appear reckless, especially given only over 5,000 LFTs were taken by staff and students between 1st January and 24th February. The University seemed to entice students back to Durham, all while supporting the work of Covid-19 wardens, who issued fines and reported students to the University for Covid-19 restriction breaches, resulting in suspensions or even expulsion.
The University’s lenient policy on re-opening campus is thus massively hypocritical. Obviously, some students break the rules, but so do plenty of people across the UK. If students returned home and broke the rules, they would face a fine. But if students return to university and break the rules, they receive both a fine and the possibility of academic sanctions. We must not take the pandemic lightly and ensure students are not putting each other or local residents at unnecessary risk, but for the University to issue such severe punishments while incentivising students’ return is both deeply contradictory and unfair.
Students have suffered during this pandemic, collectively losing nearly £1 billion in rent. Almost 75% of students have reported a decline in their mental health during the pandemic. Whilst some students have broken the rules and acted irresponsibly, it is not fair to blame students for the continuation of Covid-19. Both the government and the institutions to whom we belong have presented us with haphazard policies that incentivised our return to university, putting not only us at risk, but lecturers, university staff, and local residents too. Let’s hope that Easter Term sees uncertainty and obfuscation give way to consistency and clarity.
Image: James Stringer via Flickr