Debate: is it justified to return to Durham?

Shortly before the start of Epiphany term, students were advised by the government and Durham University not to return to campus or private accommodation, despite continuing tuition fees and rent. Palatinate Comment asked two contributors whether it is justifiable to break such restrictions and return to Durham this term.

For: students are still paying but have received almost nothing

By

Over the Christmas break, the government told students to remain at home until at least mid-February, despite offering no financial support for paying rent and student loans, and not offering to reduce university fees despite a significant reduction in the quality and quantity of our overall education. With regards to forming trust and establishing a robust level of support with a group of the population that do not receive any major income, the government’s demand that students remain at home during the latest lockdown appears to be extremely unfair and out of touch.

The fact there is little financial support for students makes it hard for politicians to expect them to remain at home whilst paying rent for a property they have been told not to go back to. Whilst receiving no indication something will change regarding university fees, students are expected to carry on as if this was a regular academic year. We are meant to behave as if we aren’t listening to pre-recorded lectures. We are meant to accept that Zoom calls are a satisfactory substitute for face to face contact hours. We are expected to sit by and watch much of the working population receive 80% of their salary for hours not worked whilst we continue to pay the same amount for access to a library we cannot study in.

The well-being and future of students is a non-issue

It is understandable why our university experience is the way it currently is; that all our learning must move online and we must limit our presence on campus. However, what is not understandable is why students are expected to carry on paying the same charges for services and accommodation we no longer have the same access to.

Therefore, it is not wrong if a student decides to return to University during the current lockdown. The University library remains open and accessible to students already in Durham, yet students who are not there have no way of accessing content unavailable online. Students may find it better studying and working at their term-time accommodation or in library spaces. Since this will not be the case for most, there will be an inevitable disparity of academic results between a vast array of students. Despite promises of a safety net for all students, there has been little detail on this from the University.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that hindsight is no longer a benefit, nor an excuse. Those in charge have had a long time to prepare for every contingency possible. The University and government have not provided any financial relief to help students manage the costs of staying home this term; and I haven’t even mentioned the costs to mental health. A few ideas to assist us spring to mind. Perhaps writing off the repayment of this year’s fees? If people are already using their maintenance grants to pay for accommodation we are told not to go back to, then what is stopping the government from waiving those payments? The fact there isn’t even a drop in the interest rate on loans, despite drops in the national interest rate, is a telling sign. The well-being and future of students is a non-issue, our small burden to bare, as long as they get their money. With such dire support students already have, they cannot be blamed for wanting to go back somewhere they can at least gain something positive from.

Against: with help from our landlords, students shouldn’t return

By Anonymous

It’s never a good start to the month when, upon opening your online banking, you find yourself knee-deep into your overdraft. Already. Cue a strange mixture of dread and anger, hardened only by the mocking ‘STURENTS’ transaction reference – like an impudent thief leaving a note chastising you for your foolishness. I’m sure I’m not alone in such a scenario which, this term, has gained a resonance of an altogether different sort. Now banned from returning to Durham by the University and national lockdown restrictions, it appears most of us will be paying rent for houses we will not be returning to until April.

Except this doesn’t seem to be the case at all.

From what my limited attempt at sleuthing has uncovered, an alarming number of students are unperturbed by current restrictions and have instead returned to their privately rented accommodation. In the majority of cases, this is irresponsible and needlessly reckless.

To put it crudely, those returning can be split into two groups: those for whom going back is a necessity, and those who have returned by choice. Students may fall into the former category for any number of reasons, perhaps the most common of which is the allure of improved working conditions. Where this is a genuine concern, for instance where a student’s home address has no wifi connection, returning to private housing is acceptable; quality of online education must not be dependent upon socio-economic circumstance. However, this is entirely separate to the latter category. If it is insistent upon preventing students’ return, the University must do more to support our online learning. The free postal loans service for finalists is a great start, but provisions for first and second years (as well as international students) is severely lacking.

In the absence of clear decision-making, we students must set the standard of behaviour

Arguably the main reason compelling us to return is rent. After accommodation fees were scrapped for those living in colleges, we are left with an almost anomalous circumstance: two sets of students, separated in most instances by only a year, being treated entirely separately – and with great personal cost. This is where student housing proprietors must exercise some responsibility. If rent fees for those in private accommodation are waived for this term, students will not return to Durham. It is not a complex situation. Yes, landlords may be out of pocket for a few months – but aren’t we all a little worse off after the pandemic? Surely this is a necessary measure to protect the local community while softening the usually sour relationship between students and estate agents? It was heartening to see City of Durham MP Mary Foy expressing this concern in an open letter to both Purpose Build Student Accommodation providers and landlords, as well as with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in the Commons. I am hopeful such an agreement will be reached, but my personal experience of the Durham student property scene offers only grim predictions.

In the absence of clear decision-making, we students must instead set the standard of behaviour. Let’s face it: we’ve all broken lockdown rules, whether that’s forgetting to wear a mask or standing too close to the person ahead in the queue for Market Square Tesco. But actively travelling (in most cases) across the country to return to Durham simply isn’t justified. Writing in The Sunday Times two weeks ago, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty stated that public behaviour hasn’t changed as necessary to halt the spread of the new variant. It seems this message is particularly pertinent for students and young people. Perhaps, as members of a demographic less susceptible to the worst effects of the virus, we can afford such a nonchalant and dis missive approach to restrictions. However, each unnecessary breach of regulations equates to thousands of infections when multiplied across the country.

We need to accept our collective responsibility in the national effort to control the virus. Even just typing that sentence makes me feel like a lame parody of one of Boris’ press conferences. But the simple fact is that the fewer of us who return to Durham, the lower the induced infection rate and the quicker we can get back to whatever ‘normal’ will be. While I’m confident most of us will adhere to this sentiment, it would appear only fair if private landlords and accommodation providers shoulder an equitable share of the financial burden.

Illustration by Samantha Fulton.

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