Unlike the first nationwide lockdown, Universities, including Cambridge, are now remaining openLucas Maddalena

The country has now been in lockdown for a week after the Government’s new rules were imposed last Thursday (5/11).

Unlike the previous lockdown, universities and other educational institutions have been permitted to stay open. In fact, students were instructed to stay in their university accommodation in a letter sent by Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities.

Between the government’s announcement of lockdown on Saturday 31st and its imposition the following Thursday, many students were left in a state of confusion regarding whether or not they would be allowed to return home.

Stories proliferated of the University using ‘ancient rules’ to force students into staying at University.

Students at Jesus, for example, received an email in which the Senior Tutor said “Full-time students are required to keep terms of residence in Cambridge in order to be awarded their degrees.”

“In order to keep residence, you need to live within the University’s precincts during term time.”

This is in reference to the University’s residency rules which require undergraduate students to live within 3 miles of St Mary’s Church and postgraduates within 10 miles during term time.

The email continued: “If you do not have the College’s permission to study remotely, you will not be allowed to progress to the next year of your course or to receive your degree if you are a finalist.”

The demand to stay at Cambridge caused particular concern for international students who launched an open letter last Tuesday (03/11). So far the open letter has received 440 signatures.

The principal demand in the open letter was that “All students must be given the option to study remotely for Michaelmas and Lent term without further justification.”

The open letter said “The University of Cambridge has adapted remarkably by moving all lectures and a significant number of practicals and supervisions online. There are a considerable number of students with zero or few in-person contact hours in Michaelmas. We therefore surmise that a quality Cambridge education does not hinge on in-person learning.”

More specifically the open letter demanded that applications for remote learning “be granted with immediate effect, without need for medical reasons or other documentation (that may be impossible to obtain in time), to allow international students to return home before Thursday’s restrictions prevent or greatly reduce flights.”

What made the situation more complex was a lack of clarity in the way the legislation, government advice and university advice interacted. In the short space of time between the announcement of lockdown and its enforcement it has proven difficult to determine what was acceptable according to the different guidelines.

Department for Education advice for international students states that “If an international student chooses to return home, ultimately it is for them to decide whether they do so. However, students planning to travel should adhere to PHE advice while in the UK to ensure they are travelling safely. Students should not travel if they have symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) or are part of a household group which is self-isolating.”

However, Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education Graham Virgo said, in an open meeting on Monday, that the “statement in the guidance which identified that international students can leave if they wish to” was based on the condition that their return continued to follow Foreign Office guidance. “We saw clarification from the Department of Education that students should not travel during the lockdown period.”

One international student, who was able to return home before lockdown was enforced, said to Varsity: “It seemed to me that the college administration didn’t understand the position and the worries of international students. Despite the fact that all lectures and supervisions are organized online so we are able to do our work from home, they were very strict when it came to seeking permission to leave. Therefore it seemed to me that they didn’t understand our position. I would be happy to see more understanding and compassion from our college in the future.”

The rules ensuring that students stay in Cambridge are in operation across every College. However, many Colleges, including Jesus, have made it very clear that if there are compelling reasons why a student should be allowed to return home then this will be considered.

Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus, sent an email in which she clarified to students that “if there is a physical or mental health reason for you to leave College to study remotely between now and the end of term, then please contact the Senior Tutor who will explain the process to you. If there is a medical reason, you do not have to have left by November 5.”

Similarly King’s sent an email to their students saying “students will not be forced to stay, or to leave. College would like to encourage students to stay if possible – as far as we know, business will continue as usual in college and in faculties. However, if you would like to go home for any reason, please contact your director of studies and your tutor as soon as possible. Don’t feel compelled to stay if your mental health and/or your studies will suffer. In any case, please don’t leave without notifying college.”

Indeed, across the Colleges the policy has been strikingly similar: all students must remain in college and any exceptions should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

This was made clear in Monday’s (09/11) open meeting in which the panelists, Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope, Graham Virgo, Senior Tutor of Corpus Christi Dr Marina Frasca-Spada, and Master of Selwyn Roger Mosey, repeatedly emphasised that exceptions would be judged on a case-by-case basis.

Roger Mosey and Dr Marina Frasca-Spada both suggested that, having had conversations with students in their respective colleges, the majority of students were glad to be able to stay at Cambridge. Dr Frasca-Spada said that in Corpus there “is a very small number” of people who want remote learning and she has spoken to those at other colleges who similarly have found that people are “very happy” to be in College.


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Cambridge Student Union (CSU), however, told Varsity that the University’s current policy “is out of touch with student opinion, as is demonstrated in the survey data collected by the International Students’ Campaign for their Open Letter and the support for the aims of our #DemandSafeCambridge Campaign at SU Council.”

“Throughout the term, we (CSU) have been advocating for there to be maximum flexibility of choice for students over whether they choose to remain in Cambridge or leave to study remotely, with adequate provisions made to support students in either case.”

“Allowing for each student to make a reasoned decision about what is the safest option for them recognises that each student’s personal circumstances are different. We will continue pushing for the University to adopt a more flexible approach to living and studying which recognises that it is students themselves who know what is best for them”, they finished telling Varsity.

However, despite pressure, it seems unlikely that the University will change its policy regarding residency rules for the rest of this term.