No, Jo Grady – students should return to campus this term

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Recently, Dr Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), announced that it is unsafe for university students to return to campus over the coming weeks. In an interview on BBC Breakfast, Grady raised concern over “the mass migration of over a million students” as they return to university campuses, travelling from “high-risk areas to low-risk areas” and living in close quarters in halls of residence. Grady stressed the potential for “transmission hotspots” on university campuses, claiming we have “the science and the knowledge and the time to prevent that happening”. But we do not have time, with some students already back at university (such as the veterinary students at the University of Nottingham) and many more returning in the coming weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has always been an exercise in managed risk. The reopening of universities is a managed risk that must be taken both for the economic survival of the institutions, and the all-round educational experience of their students. We cannot ignore the detrimental impact prolonged distance-learning would have on students’ mental health and well-being, as it already has in the last six months.

The care home scandal… is not a situation that would (or even could) repeat itself amongst a largely young and healthy population.

In imploring universities to move all teaching online, Grady asks students to stay at home for another semester, after they have already missed almost half a year’s teaching in the last academic year. Without access to library resources and face-to-face consultations with their professors (notwithstanding the basic human interaction with their peers that they have been sorely lacking since March), students’ quality of education (and quality of life) will be devastated.

Only last week the UK’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, stressed the importance of getting children back into school, as an ongoing lack of education poses a much greater threat to young people than the potential harm caused by the virus. Why does this same policy not apply to university students?

This is an insult to the hard work that many universities (Durham included) have put into COVID-securing their campuses ahead of the new academic year. Social-distancing measures, free face masks for students, enhanced cleaning, face-to-face tutorials and classes in larger spaces, one-way systems in libraries and other communal spaces; all enacted to ensure the safe return of students and staff to enjoy as full an educational experience as possible.

If we can receive “high quality” education from our childhood bedrooms, why have we been paying fees for halls of residence all this time?

Grady further stated that universities could become “the care homes of the second wave of COVID-19”, an absurd comparison to make when the risk of complications in young people is so minutely small. The care home scandal in the early stages of the pandemic was a tragedy, occurring amongst largely elderly people, many of whom had pre-existing health conditions, not a situation that would (or even could) repeat itself amongst a largely young and healthy population.

Grady has, perhaps unwittingly, undermined the very purpose of higher education institutions. If we can receive “high quality” education from our childhood bedrooms, why have we been paying fees for halls of residence all this time? If our university experience is no more than participating in the mandatory hours of teaching per week, then why do tens of thousands of students pack up to move cities, meet new people, and develop new extra-curricular interests every year?

It would be “irresponsible”, Grady claims, to allow students to migrate back to their universities come September. But it would be equally irresponsible to prevent students accessing the education they deserve. Many necessary sacrifices have been made due to COVID-19, but students should not have to sacrifice their education any longer.

Photograph: It’s No Game via Flickr.

4 thoughts on “No, Jo Grady – students should return to campus this term

  • “not a situation that would (or even could) repeat itself amongst a largely young and healthy population.”

    While I also don’t think the care home analogy is a good one, please remember that:
    1) Covid can hurt even if it doesn’t kill you. Plenty of “young and healthy” college athletes in the US are now out of the game with serious post-Covid heart conditions, and perhaps won’t be back to playing for years.
    2) The staff – the people who the Trades’ Union specifically represents – are often quite a bit older (and more likely to have health conditions making them more susceptible). They cannot morally be asked to sacrifice their own health and put their lives at risk, even if all students were 18-21 in perfect health. How many deaths are acceptable among the 6000 staff at Durham for a term’s face-to-face education?
    3) Millions of students moving around the country will also break what little regional containment of the disease there is – at the moment, some big cities are looking bad, but Durham is so far thankfully remaining relatively calm. Bring in 20,000 students, statistically 10-20 of them with Covid, and that could start a new local outbreak. Or will students all be required to stay sealed in their rooms except when attending face-to-face teaching, to prevent that?

    Durham has been ahead of most of the sector in making good preparations, minimising numbers of staff on campus, looking carefully at ventilation, and so on … and was rightly quick to shut down face-to-face work ahead of the national lockdown back in March … but there are limits to what Durham can do if the national prevalence climbs. Perhaps if every university, school, workplace, etc. was being similarly cautious we’d be okay – but they aren’t. With still almost a month to go, cases starting to rise nationally at an alarming rate, the national testing infrastructure already being overwhelmed, and a ban on gatherings over 6 people to come in on Monday … what are the chances of us getting to October and having any face-to-face teaching look at all sensible or even possible? Better to plan for making online as good as it can be – which, yes, won’t be as good for anyone as a normal year – than to pretend it’s all going to be okay.

    Reply
    • Fair enough but Durham will call people back with the ‘Teaching on campus when safe to so’ line.They need and want accommodation revenue.

      Reply
  • Views like this are short-sighted and unimaginative. University students need to socialize, yes, but they do not and will not have the tools or the reasoning capacity to do so responsibly this term. See, for example, several house parties that occurred over the summer in Durham requiring the police to enforce social distancing rules. As students return to Durham, cases have been rising and will continue to do so. Better to focus on getting online education right rather than put all of our energy into figuring out the impossible task of having high-quality in-person classes (a pipe dream. A two-hour seminar, trying to be heard across the room in a mask? Not happening), which will inevitably end in local lockdowns for most university cities.

    Reply
    • I would like to emphasize that my anger on this topic is directed towards the incompetence of the government and our university and not at the author of this article.

      Reply

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