Halls of pestilence – but students not to blame

Lonely weeks and months ahead for students Photo credit: Harriet Willmoth

University cities are becoming hotbeds of Covid-19. Over the past few weeks, over two million students from all over the UK were encouraged to move into accommodation after six months of being told not to mingle. We are putting ourselves and those around us at risk, only to receive the vast majority of our teaching remotely, and yet we continue to pay £9,250 of tuition fees a year and an average of £126 of rent per week for the privilege. Some universities seem relatively prepared for the unusual terms ahead, but others are in shambles, leaving students isolated and confused. It seems, where higher education is concerned, inconsistency is the order of the day.

No two universities have had the same response to Coronavirus. Admittedly, there has been a general move towards online lectures, but while some courses are still taught in-person, universities like Aberystwyth have suspended face-to-face teaching altogether. Various other measures have been put in place, from one-way systems, to click-and-collect library services, and even social-distance-proof outdoor bars and theatres. However, even within individual universities approaches have been inconsistent, like at the University of Cambridge where individual colleges have had wildly different pandemic approaches.

Whatever a university’s policy, their freshers have been disappointed. Rather than celebrating their newfound independence by partying and making new friends, they find themselves largely stuck in ‘households’ and only able to make friends with a very limited number of people. Some universities have made the best of a bad situation with a whole host of virtual and outdoor freshers’ events, but, once again, this has been inconsistent; far too many freshers, away from home for the first time, have spent these last few weeks lonely and alone.

We are being used as an easy scapegoat, helping to disguise the correlation between rising cases and the government’s decision to open schools, universities, pubs, clubs, and restaurants.

Loneliness is not just a problem for freshers; social isolation has rightly been enforced nationwide for those with symptoms, positive tests, or potentially infected housemates. However, systems that should be in place for coping with quarantine are better at some universities than others; at Nottingham, students in isolation do not even have reliable access to food. Even outside of quarantine, the household system has broken up support networks on which some students depend for their mental and emotional well being. For far too many of us, the weeks ahead will be lonely.

All of these measures would be easier to come to terms with if we were not paying such an extortionate amount of money unnecessarily. The government has told students that we will get no compensation for tuition fees and we continue to pay for accommodation, sometimes at high rates or with insecure leases due to the unpredictability of Coronavirus. While it is true that most of us are allowed to return home if we wish, that would risk transmitting whatever we may have picked up at university to our families. Completely unnecessarily, young people were encouraged to leave their homes, travel to institutions that were often unprepared for their return and mingle with an albeit limited number of people. It is perhaps unsurprising that, at the time of writing, more than 90 out of 130 UK universities have confirmed cases of Coronavirus, and this number is rising. Once again, we are having to navigate a situation caused by the government’s shambolic lack of clarity.

Yet the older generation seems to have very little sympathy for young people. In fact, more often than not, we are saddled with blame for the recent rise in Coronavirus cases. News stories focus on outrageous parties and illegal raves; students in Coventry have even received death threats after a BBC report. People forget that the vast majority of young people are following the rules, and those that do break them are in the same league as older people who refuse to wear masks correctly, conspiracy theorists who believe that the pandemic is a hoax, and government ministers who blatantly ignore their own regulations. We are being used as an easy scapegoat, helping to disguise the correlation between rising cases and the government’s decision to open schools, universities, pubs, clubs, and restaurants.

Our fears and concerns about returning to education are not just ‘snowflake’ whining; lives are at risk. Shambolic government policy means that astounding numbers of asymptomatic, law-abiding students are spreading the virus unknowingly in every university city in the UK. We are being taught by makeshift imitations of the Open University, except at three times the price, and in expensive accommodation that cannot even be relied upon to provide access to food. Rising cases of Coronavirus should not be blamed on us, but disastrous government policy and a general culture of British exceptionalism. We all need to work together to stop the spread of the pandemic. Generational blame is not the answer.

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