It is hard to imagine a more chaotic start to the university term than the one that’s now unfolding. After Covid-19 outbreaks in Glasgow and Manchester hundreds of students are confined to halls of residence with flatmates they have known for barely a fortnight.
At Leeds, security staff have been patrolling with dogs on the look-out for breaches of household mixing rules. Manchester Metropolitan University had to apologise after locked-down students were told to take down protest messages displayed on hall windows, and is facing legal action after students in lockdown were apparently prevented by security from leaving halls — before self-isolation became a legal requirement.
The Government knew back in July from its own scientific advisers that halls of residence and face-to-face university teaching posed risks for spreading the virus. Early in September, as it became clear that cases were rising again, the Independent SAGE group said that all teaching that could go online should go online — a position adopted by the University and College Union (UCU).
A planned, organised switch to online teaching would have allowed those students who preferred to stay with family or friends to do so, while making space for others to occupy halls and student housing in lower numbers, facilitating social distancing. Halls that are 50% full would mean every student could have a separate bedroom and workspace.
But that means universities forgoing half the rent. Many modern halls are effectively mortgaged — and without full occupancy universities can’t make repayments. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Government had stepped in. But they refused, demanding instead that universities get back to normal. And university managers, who could have clubbed together and agreed collectively not to endanger staff and student health, chose instead to compete for students on the grounds of delivering the most normal-looking “student experience”.
Students had a difficult year in 2019-20. First years endured A Level cancellations and then chaos over grades, while those partway through degrees missed weeks of teaching during strike action only then to have learning switched online when lockdown hit in March. It is no surprise that when surveyed most said they’d like to have face-to-face teaching.
Those surveys have been used by senior managers to justify forcing staff back onto campus. But if students had been given an honest explanation of what covid-distanced campuses would look like — or asked how they felt after many US campuses were forced to close — it’s likely they would have chosen differently. While in-person teaching is necessary for practical subjects, for many non-practical classes online is a better option than masked and covid-distanced classrooms where small group discussion is impossible.
Some commentators, including Blairite peer Lord Adonis, have responded with calls for tuition fee refunds. Given how few students in fact pay off their full fees, it would not cost much for the Government to write off £3k of loan debt for each student, reducing their fee to the equivalent of the online-only Open University.
But more importantly students must be entitled to end tenancies — whether with university or private landlords — and opt to live elsewhere if they prefer. It is good that universities are now providing financial assistance to locked down students. But that money must fully cover lost income from part-time work.