Covid-19 at university: the prophecy everyone predicted

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Across the country, millions of young people are once again descending upon our university towns and cities. But gone are the age-old traditions of booze-fuelled nights out and head-pounding hangovers, with students instead arriving at university to the prospect of banishment to the bedroom constantly looming over their heads.

Everyone will have seen the reports from Manchester and Glasgow of entire halls being placed into lockdown, with little access to necessities like food and cleaning supplies. These stories give news channels easy content, but the individual realities they depict are being replicated nationwide.

“Barely a few weeks into term, Covid-19 is threatening to derail the entire university sector”

Barely a few weeks into term, Covid-19 is threatening to derail the entire university sector. Moving millions of students across the country to return to university was always going to be a herculean task when draped across the backdrop of a global pandemic. Indeed, it might even seem fair to ask whether such a task was ever going to be safely or practically possible.

Some – including the UCU and the NUS – seem to be arguing against any in-person return to university, advocating for education to be delivered fully online akin to the Open University. University chancellors rightly acknowledged the problem with this approach, that the Open University charges around £10,000 less for a degree than most other institutions, so unless an effort was made to maximise on-campus teaching, universities would be obliged to offer a rebate on fees that they were scarcely able to afford.

In addition, most returning students have signed tenancy agreements with landlords for accommodation over the coming year. The economies of many university towns and cities are dependent on the yearly influx of students. Not all students have adequate resources at home to be able to successfully complete a degree to the best of their ability. In short, a return to campus was absolutely necessary.

But really, it’s about much more than that. If the government was to design a Covid-19 strategy based solely around the best interests of young people, then life would surely look much like normal. The virus would be allowed to run riot through the population, with pubs and clubs staying open and individuals free to socialise as they so pleased. Infections would skyrocket, but the vast majority of students would suffer only mild to moderate symptoms, if any at all, and at some point, so called ‘herd immunity’ would be reached.

Of course, the consequences of this would be catastrophic. Tens of thousands of elderly and vulnerable people would catch a virus that would send them to their graves, and the NHS would very probably be overrun with Covid patients. Clearly this virus doesn’t strike equally, and it is crucial we acknowledge that tens of millions of healthy young people are being asked to pause their lives in order to safeguard the welfare of the elderly and vulnerable.

This isn’t necessarily an unfair ask. It is inherent in the fight against Covid-19 that we all sacrifice some of our own liberty to protect that of our fellow citizen. Most students are at the very least begrudgingly accepting of the need for some restrictions on normal life. But it would quite simply be unfair and unenforceable to ask students to spend a year of their lives isolating at home with mum and dad.

“In short, a return to campus was absolutely necessary”

Given the governments’ seeming lack of foresight throughout this crisis, perhaps it is not surprising that university facilities and resources have not been utilized earlier to tackle the crisis. University laboratories could have been repurposed to test every student on arrival. Spare accommodation could have been used as hotels for Covid-19 positive students to isolate in, preventing the inevitability of transmission to flatmates. Support systems to deliver food and pastoral care to those isolating, whether living in university accommodation or not, should have been built.

Any competent government would have used the six months after students were told to go home to adequately prepare for their return. This government has squandered that time, and as a result, students are living through the chaos of a second wave. Students aren’t to blame, they are.

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