By Emma King
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.