It feels like every TV and radio phone-in show this week has focused on students faced with self-isolation on campus.
I would not necessarily have expected the Leader of the Opposition to get in on the act, but on a “call Keir” special he sat at the other end of the virtual sofa with Shadow Higher Education Minister Emma Hardy, with Student Mind’s superb Rosie Tressler as a very special guest.
As a University of Leeds graduate, Starmer was delighted to see three students and one parent of a student at Leeds talk about their experiences. Each was isolating, symptomatic, or with a positive test. One – Joe – lived in a 20 storey block of flats with a one of two lifts currently out of order.
Basic human needs
What shone through was the fundamental level of what students were asking for – we’re right at the bottom of your preferred hierarchy of need. Yes, wifi – but more often human contact, clear and timely information, and support. These are, in essence, what the whole country is asking for – so it should not surprise us that it is what students need.
You might have expected students to be angry, but the mood was more one of stoicism. There’s no sense that a “normal” start to first year could reasonably be expected – universities were praised for the efforts and adaptations that they had made. There was less support for moving teaching online – having moved far from home, students were looking for a reason to be there. Even though live online sessions won out convincingly over pre-recorded sessions, in person (even once a week) is seen as a reason to be there in a way that online can never be.
The students spoke about social isolation – they’ve met their household (often after first getting to know each other on social media over the summer, but are keen to meet more. Dylan, at Plymouth, was keen to get involved with student societies, but noted that early closing for buildings on campus was making it difficult for this to happen – and that the replacement Zoom sessions were just not as welcoming.
Maybe we were lucky, but we didn’t hear about students running out of food or other supplies. There was a general sense that universities are making the best of a bad situation – though Eugene (Glasgow) felt that the response could have been better planned, and Jack (Liverpool John Moores) was scathing about what he saw as an economic rationale for bringing students on campus.
Aurora, again in Leeds (living in Keir’s old hall of residence) seemed to be having a bad time of it. Where she lives, “households” are arranged around shared kitchens – so her household was not all on the same corridor. Some households on her corridor were isolating with covid – she was worried that she could be in a room next to someone with the virus. Some in her household had symptoms, and had to walk three hours to the nearest available testing stations as the on campus centre was full. Aurora had no in-person teaching, she moved only to be offered online provision she’d have preferred to have at home.
Two of the most affecting calls came from parents – Sanjiv’s son at Leeds tested positive for Covid after a week living in halls, he is “weak” but recovering and still learning via online lectures. The fact this student was now at risk of a serious long term health impact, living in a hall of residence that is entirely in quarantine, was “entirely avoidable”. Zoe’s daughter is also her carer – she’s travelling home tonight from Northampton to be with her mum as she’s not sure when she will next be able to. Zoe noted that her daughter’s housemates were struggling financially as they were unable to get jobs as they had planned – and were “furious” about having only one face-to-face lesson a week.
What will Kier and Labour do about these situations? Clearly, they’ll be keeping the pressure on – there was a lot of interest in how students may have not met their housemates until a couple weeks ago and were now helping them do swab tests. The call came alongside a Labour campaign asking for better signposting for mental health support, Rosie Tressler was brought into the call several times to point students to advice (on Studentspace) – a couple of callers reported that this was not happening via university communications.