Matt Brown

Students at King’s College, Cambridge say they are being forced out of their accommodation due to the coronavirus, despite repeatedly telling the College that they risk their own health, or the health of vulnerable family members, if they return home.

On Tuesday, King’s told students that in light of the University closing they strongly advised students to travel home “if it is safe for you to do so, and to take your belongings with you if you can.”

Students were told they had just two hours to contact the Accommodation Officer and provide a justification for why they needed to stay.

While the University says “no students who cannot go home are being evicted by their College”, a number of students at King’s College say they are being unreasonably pressured to leave.

Abdullah, a politics finalist from Pakistan, said he informed the College that his mother had an autoimmune disease and that travel home would involve being potentially quarantined in a group upon arriving in Pakistan, resulting in a high risk of infection.

The current Foreign Office travel advice is to avoid “all but essential international travel”.

In an reply from the college Tutorial Office, who are responsible for student welfare, Abdullah was told, “by staying in King’s and thereby in a more extended community, you are not only putting yourself and fellow students, but also staff members of the college...and by extension their families, at risk of infection.”

The email shared NHS guidelines on living with a vulnerable person, such as minimising the time spent in shared spaces together, however it finished, “we do understand your concerns, but do still believe, at this time, that it is in your best interests to return home if you possibly can.”

Other students received a similar email after informing the College that they did not wish to leave.

Another finalist, who wished to remain anonymous, said she felt the College were being “emotionally manipulative” by saying students would put staff and their family members at risk, after she told the College that she wanted “no support at all from any staff - the last thing I want is to put people at risk”.

The student says she explained that her mother has a “history of cancer” and a “number of health conditions which make her particularly vulnerable”. She also said she felt “emotionally distressed by this whole situation and that leaving college right now would make it worse.”


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Meanwhile, second year student Ewan was asked to vacate his accommodation “as soon as possible”, despite explaining his mother “is severely immunocompromised as she has no spleen”.

His mother is currently self-isolating after the government listed her condition as putting “people at even higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19”.

The family live in a “small house with shared bathroom and toilet” and Ewan says his mother would have to drive a 5 hour round trip to move him out, increasing her risk of catching the virus. He is now looking at privately renting accommodation.

The College FAQ section on coronavirus says “no student will be forced to leave the College” and that students would continue to be offered accommodation, although it was “highly likely” they would be asked to move to another block.

In a statement to Varsity the College said: "Over the recent, rapidly changing weeks, the College has sought to provide what we believe to be the most appropriate guidance to students based on the latest advice of both the University and of Public Health England."

"It is apparent that in communicating this recommendation we have at times used language that has been unduly forceful or upsetting in advising students to depart the College.

"This has naturally been a stressful time for students and staff alike and as a community we must make a renewed effort to convey the humane reasoning behind our decisions and uphold our sensitivity and empathy as this difficult period develops. Future communications from the College will reflect this."

Senior college staff are now holding meetings with some students to discuss their situations and the College said they "encourage any student who feels like they have been put under undue pressure to leave the College to contact the Senior Tutor to discuss their circumstances as soon as practicable."

In full King's College's response

Over the recent, rapidly changing weeks, the College has sought to provide what we believe to be the most appropriate guidance to students based on the latest advice of both the University and of Public Health England. Since the University’s transition to the “red phase” of its coronavirus (COVID-19) response on March 18th, we have recommended that students who are safely able to vacate the College do so at their earliest convenience.

It is apparent that in communicating this recommendation we have at times used language that has been unduly forceful or upsetting in advising students to depart the College. This has naturally been a stressful time for students and staff alike and as a community we must make a renewed effort to convey the humane reasoning behind our decisions and uphold our sensitivity and empathy as this difficult period develops. Future communications from the College will reflect this.

Those students who are currently unable to leave the College due to travel restrictions, for whom King’s is their primary residence, or for whom it would otherwise be unsafe to return to a family home, will continue to receive our full support at what we realise is a time of immense anxiety and vulnerability. Nevertheless, we are now aware that a number of students who had expressed a wish to remain within the College environment have since felt pressured to leave, despite conveying reasons why doing so may pose a greater risk to their own or their family’s health.

As these instances have come to light the Senior Tutor has been meeting those students, as well as reaching out to representatives of both King’s College Student Union and King’s College Graduate Society, in order to ensure our students are being given the care and assistance that we would customarily provide. We would encourage any student who feels like they have been put under undue pressure to leave the College to contact the Senior Tutor to discuss their circumstances as soon as practicable.

King’s has long prided itself on being a welcoming and inclusive place. In some instances over the past few days we have acted too strongly, and for this we express our sincere regret. The safety, security and well-being of our students and staff will, as ever, be our utmost priority as together we navigate these worrying and uncertain times.

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An open letter with over 200 signatures has been written to Cambridge University and its Colleges, demanding “ the intercollegiate university rescind its hostile harassment of students to ‘go home’—a harassment causing them to endanger themselves and others—and encourage caution for those who wish to travel back to their loved ones during these times”.

King’s College only cancelled its annual fundraising campaign at midday on Tuesday after multiple students quit during their shifts on Monday night. The campaign involves 12 students ringing alumni and donors to ask for donations, and in 2018 raised £196,627 for the College.

Abdullah, who was one of the students calling alumni to ask for money, claimed there were multiple students with a “hacky cough” in the room and said this showed “blatant disregard by college towards student’s welfare, despite government advice against non essential gatherings the day before”.

While King’s have been criticised by students for their response to the coronavirus, other colleges have been more welcoming.

Vice-Master of St John’s College, Professor Tim Whitmarsh, wrote in reply to a student’s concerns in a Facebook group, “we are not forcing people out: if the situation at home (or en route to home) is perilous, please don’t travel.”

Meanwhile, one finalist at Magdalene College commended their college for ensuring no student felt they were being forced to leave and said, “personally, my tutor was very understanding of my situation when I explained why I wanted to stay”.

Updated Friday 6.03pm: This article was updated to add that senior college staff are now holding meetings with some students to discuss their situations and determine whether the College will continue to offer them accommodation.

Updated Saturday 2.24pm: This article was updated to include comment from King's College.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following information and support is available:

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