It has been warned for weeks, months even, that it is a mistake to let students return to campus.
If you really think hard, zoom out and take a wider perspective, students returning to campus on balance would always have probably lead to more negatives than positives.
On the one side, it’s the opportunity for students to finally be back around their friends once again, or even better to meet new ones. It’s also the chance to try a return to some relative normality, and for many to enjoy some good moments after a difficult few months.
Whether those positives are worth it though in comparison to some of the relatively more worrying things that have been well documented in the press recently? That’s a different case.
The migration of students to universities in September was always going to be a huge change for the country. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people moving across a country in a global pandemic. It’s a big thing to do, and something that probably needed a great deal more thought by the government and key decision makers.
Why did students end up coming back?
There was the promise face to face teaching.
This was of course dependent on university and their decisions over the last few months, but that’s the main big difference. The last academic year came to an end with general acceptance that online teaching would be the only way forwards and the situation is just going to be one of those impossible things to sort out.
The problem is though that when attention quickly turned from the last academic year which was on its way out to the new one, common sense didn’t prevail.
Many institutions can be guilty of advertising the need for a “blended approach” of face to face teaching and online learning; and in some cases pure face-to-face teaching.
Who the blame lies with for that is difficult and complex, and ultimately not for me to say. It’s not right for me to sit here and point the finger at who was right and would be wrong. It is appropriate and constructive to say though that some of the issues that we have seen recently may well have been prevented.
The issues we’ve seen recently across the news about students returns to their university is due to a coalescence of chaos. We are talking about several very complex issues intersecting with one another, that were never going to separate.
There’s the reliance of Universities on fee income; the lack of support for the higher education sector from the government more broadly; the expectation of a delivery of service and value for money in return for exchange of tuition fees; and finally and above all – the fact that it’s a lot harder to sell universities on the premise of a markedly different experience for the same price.
The return of students to universities has ultimately become an ethical dilemma, because everybody can see it is having a negative effect. This is as cases across campus’ rise, students find themselves isolated, there’s discussions about lockdowns and nobody quite knows what is going to happen. The reason why it’s become an ethical dilemma isn’t just because of these issues though. It’s because nobody has found a solution to it.
Was it necessary students came to study on campus for this academic year? Probably not.
The issue was though that no real alternative was ever going to be given. The university experience had been sold on a premise and promise, of some case of some face to face contact. If you lived in a non-commutable distance from university, you’d have to go if you wanted to be taught. Those intersectional issues above create the issues that have forced students to have to return to campus.
If theoretically it had been decided that teaching would be online, students would have pushed back in some cases arguing where is the value for money. You could argue that there’s a fair point there.
It would have been good news for staff, and students from the perspective of safety – generally just due to the lack of contact. There is of course the problem though that the lack of contact would have created a much emptier and an altogether less rich experience, particularly for the new intake of students.
There is of course other downsides to an online only approach. The loss of commercial revenue and income at Students’ Unions; the damage to local business’ which rely heavily on students being around and also the general lack of vibrancy in areas which students bring so much too.
Where do we go now?
Rather than thinking about what could have been, we should focus on what is happening, and where things are heading.
One of the most unhelpful things recently quoted in the sector has been some strange comments around people needing to find strength in one another to carry them through this period.
You can’t give students little alternative than to come back to campus and tell them to get on with it when things get bad. You have to take responsibility for those issues and try and find a resolution to them.
The issues around the return of students to campus have been warned for a long time, by many people. Responsibility becomes an important word in this sense, as the people who should be held accountable for this mess ultimately have hidden away from it.
The repercussions? Well, at many institutions face to face teaching is now going.
This is almost definitely the right decision, but it is also the one reason why it was relevant for students to “need” to return to campus that is being taken away too. Although this move is seen as precautionary and temporary, with cases rising across the country in coronavirus; we could be set for a repeat of what happened in last March and April but potentially worse. This would be just weeks into the new term for students as well.
Geography matters too. There is news coming out about local lockdowns in the North now, and potentially even in the midlands. What happens for those students away from home up North now? Or what happens for the students who have moved down South and now can’t return back to their parents? The issue is there is no central guidance or direction to solve these issues, just brief cognisance from those who make the decisions that it’s been a problem, when it is far too late. Students deserve better.
What needs to be done?
Realistically, options of rent relief need to be seriously considered. The NUS are doing a fantastic job of ensuring students start to think along these lines, and it’s only natural students will be worrying about this right now too.
Back in April, some Universities made the right, just and moral decision of letting students exit their contracts with no financial penalty. This was almost definitely the right decision, and the Universities who chose to do that, were deservedly applauded back then. The pandemic was unexpected, the response was always going to be difficult and under the circumstances the right decisions were made by those who could make them. Just because it was the only moral and ethical thing to do.
The problem with now is that it’s so much more complicated.
Students never actually needed to return to universities, not at least until there was utter confidence this pandemic had been fully dealt with. They were moving to university with full knowledge that there was a global pandemic, but were not really given much else as an alternative. The job market is far from welcoming for students wanting to look at a gap year, or a year out. There’s no chance of being able to go on a year abroad with the situation either. It really was always going to be a lose-lose.
There is an argument that things had changed over the summer period, and that business’ and universities themselves have learned to adapt to the situation. That isn’t fully the case though, because no matter how safe places may now be, this is still an unknown and unpredictable virus.
Everybody has been warned of a second wave for a long time, and universities confidence in students being able to return for a new semester maybe was nothing more than “putting on a brave face” and hiding their true anxiety about not having the financial backing they need to survive. This came ahead the true wellbeing of students in that sense. As expensive quarantine packages for students self-isolating seem to have worked their way across the sector over the past week or so, there can be justified concerns about profiteering over people too.
But yet again, the worst effects come back onto the students, and they aren’t the ones making these decisions. Students’ Unions also have had to ultimately work out how to support students with this too and aren’t getting any support or help in doing so.
Rent becomes a more significant issue than ever too.
Why? Because all different students have different circumstances. This seems blatantly obvious, but it is easy for people to forget it.
For those living in University owned accommodation, they are more likely to have the opportunity to exit their contracts should things return to a March-like situation. Universities ultimately are very wealthy institutions, and the least they can probably do for their students who have shown confidence and trust in coming to campus.
The issue if the above proves to be the case will lie mostly in those students who are privately renting.
Last year with coronavirus taking full effect towards the end of the semester – the ethics behind students paying for houses they didn’t want to live in any longer was generally swept under the carpet.
If students have only had the opportunity to live in their newly rented properties for just a couple of months this time though, surely it is not right nor fair that they can continue to pay for those properties. Especially when they had little alternative but to return to campus.
There is always the argument that some will suggest around the landlords needing the money from rent, but in this case it simply feels like profiteering from misfortune.
There’s also an argument about students not needing to return home if the second wave truly takes hold. Wouldn’t you want to be around your family in your home town, rather than treading through unknown waters miles away from them? I think I know the answer to that one.
It’s a foreboding crisis, and a response needs to be thought through. The problem though is that it won’t be, not until it’s too late. This will not be seen as a serious priority until the government have to react to it, and even when that’s the case it is unlikely it’ll get the careful consideration it needs.
Alongside the most complex issue in rent, there’s the obvious associated issues around mental health that come with this too. We’ve seen students stuck in new flats for weeks already, and that probably isn’t going to change or go away.
Some stories we’ve heard in the media recently have felt little less than dystopian, but they are real life and we are hearing them. It’s just crucial that things don’t get worse.
So what can be done?
Ultimately, this conversation needs to be opened up with Government, and that’s difficult as it’s just one of many issues they are failing to fix at the moment.
When a government who are in power attribute Students’ Unions as nothing more than centres for “niche activism”, it’s unlikely they’ll take their concerns seriously. This is why this attribution and attack on the sector is dangerous though, as this is more than just an issue around freedom of speech or something along those lines. It’s a huge and serious issue, and it needs to be considered at the highest levels before things get worse.
The conversation also needs to be opened up with universities too on a local level. It’s obvious that they will know this will get a lot worse, but their position politically becomes important too and could create ramifications going forwards.
The least you should and would expect is that universities would be honest with themselves and their students that they need to do something, but it’s unknown as to how long it’ll take until this will happen.
We’ll be keeping an eye on this ourselves at Campaigns for Students and looking to open up conversations around these issues. The next few weeks will be both huge and significant for students, and you can only hope that changes will be made to support students through this rather than leaving them to get on with it.