Christmas was always going to be difficult, but January may be harder

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Long awaited guidance around students returning home for Christmas has finally been both released and received the attention it deserves, after constant and tireless campaigning from student leaders across the higher education sector.

A strong and concerted effort from the National Union of Students and Students’ Unions across the country has resulted in some practical guidance for supporting students who will move to another home over the Christmas period. This was rightly a huge win for students, and is guidance that should ultimately have come quite some time ago.

The danger of this guidance being released several weeks before a proposed window of students actually going home, is problematic in many senses. That being said, the pressure around policymaking on governmental level will be enormously difficult at the moment too, and it is important to reflect on that. It is by no means a perfect solution to a difficult problem, and it has come too late. It is however something though, which constitutes a win for students and a step forward in the response to coronavirus.

The main issue though with this is again the shortsightedness of picking Christmas as a main objective and goal and not thinking around the wider ramifications of that. For some students, returning home at Christmas is not actually practical or possible. In the case of international students, it looks increasingly unlikely that they will actually be able to go home. There are other student groups as well who will already call their university town and city ‘home’ for various reasons, and this guidance in many cases overlooks their experiences. They should not be overlooked, and deserve to have support in place for what can often be an isolating time of year for some.

It is of course great that for those students who will hopefully be able to return to family homes for Christmas, but the bigger picture again seems to have been hidden behind a thinly veiled curtain.

Why January?

Though there are now action plans to try and safely return students who live away from their family home to their towns and cities this winter, the question for many will be what happens next?

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the vast majority of decision making from central government (and in some cases, universities) around student experience has largely been reactive. We have seen evidence of this in the response to the A-Level fiasco, to students first moving back to accommodation and also in how in person teaching existed but never became a concrete ‘thing’ again.

The big issue is that you simply cannot create large plans for students to migrate across the country at the end of December, and not fully think through the ramifications of that self-same movement several weeks later. Travel corridors and mass-testing follow the end of a mass lockdown of the country is a good thing, and makes some sense. With students being somewhat “blamed” for a rise in coronavirus cases back in September, we could set for a repeat in January if students migrate across the country in large numbers, and cases rise in University towns and cities.

Taking students from university to home at the start of December can be a relatively easy task in practicality, but if you consider the vast majority of students to be returning to family homes of 3+ people, you can see how the capability for spreading the virus is increased when students return back in January. The perceived risks are obvious, but the practical solutions are lacking.

What about Online Teaching?

There always has to be the question both around the quality of online teaching, and the actual value for money of it. We have covered before that it was always going to be difficult to create perceived value around online teaching, but equally it is the safest way to ensure that teaching is delivered during the coronavirus pandemic.

Student leaders are often caught in some cases between students who rightly who want what they are “paying for” but equally universities who believe they are offering genuine quality.

Whether it was actually necessary for students to return back to campus in September, the answer is probably not. But universities needed money, cities needed students and there was some potential that the term could have been a positive one after a significant decrease in coronavirus cases over the summer period.

The issue of moving all teaching online as it more or less has been by now, iterates the issues around why students did ever need to go to university in person this year, and why more practical solutions were never thought through. Here we are focusing on January, but what happens if at Easter we are faced with similar issues?

Some longer-term thinking in the higher education sector would be good now as tired and overworked Students’ Union officers don’t have the capacity to deal with these issues, and by not thinking into the future it creates more issues than it solves.

What if students can’t return back to University? (and what if they can?)

And this is ultimately the big issue. What if Christmas “doesn’t work”?

Many students pay rent either to their university or privately, and those financial obligations will hang over their heads no matter whether they can or can’t return home.

With mass redundancies across the country already having taken affect, and waning financial support in tough economic times from parents it makes life hard for students to afford things like rent and living costs. Even if students aren’t at university, they’ll struggle in some cases to pay for the things they’ve signed up for – despite it not being their fault they can’t go back. The other huge challenge has to be the lack of jobs for students to actually supplement their income with as many industries in which they would work over the Christmas period such as jobs at Restaurants or bars won’t be there.

Whether students are or aren’t back at University, this will be issues that furlough won’t fix, and that student finance won’t fully support.

Even if students can afford all of the above, and have to do months more of online teaching, then those arguments about quality and value for money also exist, and make things much harder for everybody.

It remains to be seen how supporting those students returning to the university towns and cities in January will be done, and it is certainly of critical importance that guidance is released as quickly as possible in order to support students.

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