University in a Post COVID age
Written by Molly Bolding
COVID-19 is going nowhere fast. The pandemic has become one of the greatest public health crises in recent decades and its impact can be seen everywhere: lives put on hold, experiences lost, opportunities denied. Even now, with talk of a potential vaccine in the next twelve months, the reality of the changes that have already been made is setting in at universities across the UK. Both students and campuses have had to make huge adjustments on and off campus, but a widespread lack of funding which was already an issue pre-COVID has meant that many are stretched to breaking point. The Independent’s survey from September suggested that almost 60 per cent of students had considered dropping out of their courses this year, while the average student loan debt has increased by almost £200 a year as many students can no longer access part-time work to support themselves.
As shocking as that sounds, the issues that many students are facing now, such as financial insecurity or course inflexibility, are not new. A 2017 article in The Conversation UK suggested that inflexibility from universities – particularly when considering students who have part-time or full-time working commitments to support their studies – is the main reasons that students drop out of higher education courses. This has taken on a whole new significance in 2020: many universities have instituted convoluted requirements on students in order to meet government guidelines and still provide the teaching that students signed up for.
In light of COVID-19, changes to teaching delivery were to be expected, though their implementation has amplified calls for tuition fee refunds – especially after years of intermittent teaching strikes. The University of Cambridge was the first to declare that all lectures would be delivered online until 2021, while maintaining a commitment to providing in-person, small class teaching, and many institutions have followed suit. However, beyond these obvious adjustments, some of the more fundamental changes occurring in university policy making at the moment will affect current and future students for years to come, far beyond COVID: namely, changes to accommodation arrangements.
These changes will have both direct and indirect impacts on students around the country, in terms of setting a precedent for ‘post-COVID’ policy. A prime example of this can also be found in Cambridge: as soon as the return to university campuses was confirmed, Trinity College implemented a ‘COVID-19 lease agreement’ – deemed “borderline illegal” by many student commentators – which required students to follow a strict ‘COVID code of conduct’ or risk having their rooms forcibly repossessed. Students were given less than 24 hours to sign the agreement, which contained phrasing stating that it could ‘changed at any time’. Trinity College was the first of the thirty-one colleges to send students home during Easter term, so their hard-line policy was not surprising, but for many students attempting to follow government and university guidelines it was distressing and disconcerting. The college later clarified that students may be able to appeal to stay with permission of their tutors, in keeping with the University-wide statement on accommodation, but the impact had already been made.
A more extreme step has been made by the University of Warwick, who last week announced that they will be rescinding the entirety of their managed off-campus accommodation program starting next year. Students living in private accommodation in the city have previously had access to a range of university services due to an arrangement with landlords under their ‘Head Lease’ agreement, such as on-call staff at night and safety inspections, but this is now being phased out.
Reducing students’ access to accommodation, or creating strict rules that students must follow at risk of being turned away, is an uncomfortable development when university students are already facing so many boundaries to accessing their courses safely. This is especially true for estranged students, who may not have safe places to return to if removed from or denied accommodation they can usually count on at the university. The border between education institution and residential accommodation which campuses straddle has always been a difficult arrangement for universities to manage, but COVID-19 has exacerbated this to an unprecedented degree.
The uncertainty that these changes have created – on top of the general anxiety of living in pandemic and the usual difficulties of universities – has seen an exorbitant rise in issues of student mental health. Within the context of the UK’s extant youth mental health crisis, COVID-19 has massively increased both concerns and cases of poor mental wellbeing and a lack of support for students. This has appeared in a multiplicity of forms: a Guardian article released this week suggested that 62 per cent of students surveyed said new forms of distance learning assessment had been the biggest strain on their mental health, while others described dealing with “loneliness, anxiety and depression as a result of their experiences” both on and away from campuses. Compounding this are instances of irresponsible policy: Jesus College at Cambridge recently announced that any students who reported sexual harassment and assault which took places in situations which violated COVID-19 guidelines would face discipline – a development which empowers perpetrators rather than victims, essentially removing the consequences for such behaviour.
Across the pond, Harvard University has just amended a similar policy. COVID-19 was always going to present major issues for students, but with the return to national lockdown and rising case rates, it looks set to affect life after university in the long-term too. UK-based research site Milkround suggests that “just 18 per cent of graduates are securing jobs this year compared to the typical 60 per cent” – a statistic that speaks to the widespread reduction in internship, training and graduate schemes that COVID-19 has led to. Life after graduation has entered a whole new realm of uncertainty, and this doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.