Students shouldn’t have to demand safety

Covid-19 has plunged the higher education sector into turmoil and universities across the country are scrambling to lay plans for the coming academic year.

As sabbatical officers for the [new] Cambridge Students’ Union, we’ve been active participants in the higher-level discussions taking place at our university. On the flipside, we’ve also been in close contact with the students and staff who’ll be most directly affected by the university’s plans for reopening, and it’s been impossible to ignore what seems to be a fundamental disjuncture between the university’s response to Covid-19 and the concerns of its community.

The secret life of students

As any student representative might recognise, one key characteristics of university decision-makers is a baffling inability to understand what being a student might be like. This is frustrating and harmful in a normal year. But when plans for safe operation during a pandemic are being formulated based on bizarre assumptions about student experience and predictions about student behaviour, it could become more a matter of life and death.

Our university has a steadfast commitment to delivering as much in-person teaching as possible, in addition to its arcane “terms of residence”. Unlike most UK universities, Cambridge makes term-time residency “within three miles of Great St. Mary’s church” mandatory for undergraduate students – for postgraduates, the radius is a slightly more generous 10 miles.

Aside from the exceptional circumstances of (stringently evidenced) medical vulnerability to infectious diseases or being literally unable to get to Cambridge due to travel restrictions, the policy offers very little flexibility for studying remotely or even taking time out of study to avoid travelling to Cambridge. This has been of particular concern for international students, many of whom would much rather stay in home countries where the daily number of new cases is consistently below 10.

When asked about their motivations, university managers across the country refer to the value of the “residential experience”, arguing that education is enhanced by physical access to academics, libraries, and the educational space of the institution more broadly. What they can’t seem to fathom is that students aren’t automatons, and what’s really valuable about the “residential” student experience isn’t being able to look your supervisor in the eye from two metres away instead of over Zoom for an hour a week.

This is the case especially if face-to-face teaching is prioritised to the extent that it might come at the cost of more stringent restrictions on socialising. For us “residence” is fundamentally about living: the day-to-day interactions and social relationships you can form with others going through similar experiences in close physical proximity. In other words, having and making friends, and taking part together in the new activities campus life has to offer.

What’s on offer will be drastically different in every way that actually matters. Students will be segmented into households and prevented from visiting any household other than their own; the majority of teaching will be delivered virtually, with exceptions made for small group teaching; libraries will be running “click and collect” systems, with bookable workspace chronically limited by social distancing requirements; social spaces – and social activities by extension – will be similarly limited, with perhaps the odd marquee erected to accommodate larger outdoor gatherings.

And as winter approaches, socialising in open-air tents will become impractical and students will end up closeted away in their rooms.

Students’ mental health and loneliness are already huge problems across the country. At Cambridge specifically, a survey conducted by the SU last year found that 75% of respondents felt lonely on a daily or weekly basis. Loneliness isn’t just social isolation; it’s compounded by “a mismatch between the relationships [people] want and those they have” – in other words, “what happens when you’ve been sold a lie”. As UCU has warned, universities’ plans to return to “business as usual” are setting the stage for a “perfect storm to end up with something that actually neither side wanted or expected”, and the consequences of this will last a generation.

Personal and institutional responsibility

There are two other related consequences to this approach. The first is that if decision-makers within universities don’t grasp the necessity of students’ social lives, there is a danger that they won’t understand the responsibilities they have for facilitating safe social activities using their property and organisational resources, to which neither students’ unions nor students themselves have access — especially as new law comes into place restricting social gatherings to six people, with education exempted. The second is that they won’t be able to anticipate how students actually will (and can reasonably be expected to) behave in this situation, nor adequately plan for dealing with the potential consequences.

Cambridge’s response to mounting evidence about the “significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify” transmissions has been to launch a public health campaign called #StaySafeCambridgeUni. The campaign exhorts students to ‘act responsibly’ to minimise the risk of transmission and ‘keep everyone in our community as safe as possible’: ‘to ensure that our people and community continue to thrive, each one of us has a responsibility to (i) behave in a way that minimises the risk of infection, (ii) treat each other with dignity and respect, and (iii) keep up to date with public health guidance and follow it at all times.’

Although we agree that everyone in the community needs to come together to protect themselves and each other during times such as these, personal responsibility is not a substitute for institutional responsibility. What’s missing from the slogan #StaySafeCambridgeUni is a clear, concrete commitment from the university to protect the community. Universities need to realise that they create the conditions for safe behaviour, and can’t simply rely on individual lifestyle and behaviour changes to keep communities safe.

If universities expect everyone to “work together’ to ‘look after ourselves and others,” they need to take concrete steps to build relationships of trust with their student-staff bodies. It’s not enough to speak of a “community” whose safety we’re all responsible for without actually listening to it and engaging with it as a serious partner. Embedding student-staff engagement throughout decision-making processes is key – and not just as a mere matter of principles. Guidelines need to reflect the realities of the situation on the ground and be formulated in collaboration with the community if they are to be enforceable and effective.

What is to be done?

Our response as a students’ union has been to launch a campaign to #DemandSafeCambridge, jointly supported by our UCU branch, calling for a range of measures that we believe will make living, studying, and working in Cambridge as safe as possible. Most importantly, the demands have grown out of extensive consultations with students and staff about their ongoing concerns: the kind of collaborative process the university should be seeking to engage in with its members.

As students start to arrive, however, it’s hard not to feel that time is running out on what can meaningfully be put into practice. And despite whatever good intentions decision-makers might now have, and our commitment to fighting for these demands as long as they are needed, it’s also hard not to feel that it never had to be this way.

The pandemic has made the failings of a marketised HE sector clearer than ever. As far as we can see, the most effective cure for this Covid-induced crisis seems to be an approach which centres the voices of the community by engaging in collaboration and, most importantly, extending care and compassion at all times.

Fundamentally, universities need to listen to their concerns, and realise that this situation simply isn’t sustainable. These unprecedented circumstances call for innovation; universities must broaden their imaginations to extend beyond the conditioning of marketisation which has limited their approaches so far. University members are crying out for meaningful engagement and it’s time for HE institutions to deliver.

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