Current government guidance on returning to university is insufficient.PIXABAY

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement on 4th January that there is to be another lockdown in England, the position of students across the UK is unclear. The current situation is outlined in the government guidance, which limits returning to university to those studying a prescribed list of subjects. But this, as ever, is vague and insufficient, and is contradicted by further guidance that suggests returning might be possible for certain reasons, including inadequate resources. It is absolutely essential that we are given the choice as to whether we return to Cambridge or study from home, rather than having this decided for us.

Studying remotely is simply not workable for many, something that those of us who were here last year are all too aware of – this is, as they say, not our first rodeo. Many of us, quite legitimately and for a multitude of reasons, would be far more comfortable studying away from home. It is totally inequitable to remove that choice.

“We have been sent to-and-fro between home and university, caught in a confusing tangle of unclear guidance.”

Many students face a lack of appropriate study space or resources at home, which will have a hugely detrimental impact on their studies. An unstable internet connection is hardly apposite for online study when sustaining a Zoom call, watching lectures and accessing online materials is essential; it is simply not realistic to expect family members, likely to be working remotely themselves, to sacrifice their own internet usage for this. A shared room with siblings, too, is hardly a suitable environment in which to pursue university study – let alone to any proficient level. Forced to stay at home, students are also cut off from resources readily available in the university setting: libraries, labs, and dedicated study spaces. I myself found the inability to access these facilities under the last national lockdown severely constricting, and I do not believe it unfair to suggest that compulsory remote study operates on the somewhat classist presumption that every student has the means to do so, or can easily acquire them. Many professionals, while facing their own similar struggles, have at least been supported by their employers in making the transition to remote working, rather than being sent to-and-fro between home and university, caught in a confusing tangle of unclear guidance.

Other students will wish to return for mental health reasons, or to escape a turbulent home life. These exceptions, formerly present in the guidance, are now unclear – do they still apply, or not? Students are depending on these answers, students who may find greater support at university and feel more comfortable there. This is not merely an academic consideration but a personal one, too – it would be abhorrent to force individuals to remain in potentially unsafe and unhealthy domestic settings. Others, without a stable or fixed home address, would have nowhere else to go if they were forced to leave. To deny them the ability to stay would be to condemn them to homelessness, an evidently unacceptable outcome.

“The safety of all those in the community is clearly of paramount importance, but ‘where students’ needs to return can be accommodated safely, they should be.”

Others, mainly STEM students, will still have practical elements to their courses. These simply cannot be replaced by remote study. While some STEM courses are included in the guidance for returning, not all of them are, and will result in a palpable drop in the quality of education received. A closure of the university that prevents students returning to continue their studies, then, would totally fail to consider the individual needs and requirements of each student, an infantilising decision that would remove our ability to make intelligent and considered choices about how we wish to conduct our studies and live our lives. We have seen the sophisticated, effective testing and isolating system the University deployed in Michaelmas, with encouraging results – this very same system, and appropriately stringent disciplinary measures for breaking the rules, can be used to ensure that our return to university is conducted safely. Rightly or wrongly, we pay for higher education, and so it seems only fair that we should decide how this is conducted. Value for money, in education as with anything else, is a real and fair consideration: I would suggest that it may be seriously lacking for some forced to study at home. The safety of all those in the community is clearly of paramount importance, but where students’ needs to return can be accommodated safely, they should be.


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Some students will be content to study at home – some may even welcome it. Yet for many of us, this nirvana of productive home study is a chimaera; it is thus a categorical imperative that we have free choice. By continuing to test, trace and isolate students in Cambridge, we could return and conduct our studies safely, if we need and chose to. What we must avoid is a one-size-fits-all approach. After all, what will not solve this problem is ignoring it in every press conference, briefing, update and broadcast. We need – we deserve – clarity and strong leadership. The time for dithering and delay is over.