Who are students going to live with next year?

New Covid restrictions could prevent student mixing for most of the academic year. Jim Dickinson calls for coordinated action that addresses a growing belonging problem.

The most important thing is that the students who are now back at university in large numbers should, like everybody else, follow the guidelines.

And it’s also important that when there are outbreaks in universities that students should not be going home to infect their older relatives.

Not my words – the above are those of Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the debate that followed the announcement of England’s new Covid restrictions. If you missed them, we’re talking:

  • Increased penalties for not wearing a mask or gathering in groups of more than six (like everybody else students should follow the guidelines, but unlike everybody else they still have no access to the cushions and carrots that go with the new sticks);
  • All pubs, bars and restaurants will be restricted to table service only and a hospitality venue curfew from 22:00 (similar will happen in Scotland);
  • Office workers (though not academics, of course) are told to work from home again;
  • Exemptions to the “rule of six” for indoor team sports will end.

First we should reflect on the Prime Minister’s choice of words. (Yet) again we have students in the UK framed as Harry Potter HE – boarders who appear in September and “go home” in December. At the risk of repeating myself so much that the site crashes, someone really needs to tell No.10 that commuter students exist, and that a big chunk of students are going home every weekend if not every afternoon – where, presumably, they will be “infecting their older relatives” already – let alone the staff teaching them.

As one correspondent notes on Twitter, the thoughtlessness is even worse when you remember that commuter students tend to also be members of groups at greater risk from Covid anyway.

I called for you, you were there

Westminster being obsessed with the boarding school model is one thing – but be careful what you wish for. In Northern Ireland Arlene Foster has an HE system where it’s more obvious that a significant number of students go home every weekend, so much so that she’s threatening to stop them from being able to unless things improve.

Don’t bet against similar restrictions on travel emerging UK-wide, which ends in the grotesque chaos of university communities begging for students to be sent home, while government begs (and threatens) them to stay.

We do need to worry a fair bit about venues and the licensed trade. Without extra help or any furlough extension, industry bodies are pointing out that the 10pm/six months announcements are the final nail in their coffin. Seriously – in your student town or city, how many places are there to sit of evening if half the venues close and the rest are at 20% capacity? Lohan Presencer, Executive Chairman of Ministry Of Sound Group, puts some of the wider issues here better than me:

Away, though, from the stupidity of the other things on the list like curfews (where now pre-drinks in packed unventilated houses just become… all drinks), we now have to turn our attention to what happens in a few weeks when the moral panic dies down, and photojournalists stop treating outdoor events on UK campuses as the autumn equivalent of those misleading photos on beaches we got in May.

Whenever dark turns to night

I like to think that I’m OK at looking around corners, but even for me the announcement of new national measures has driven home the “long haul” thing. I’m someone that likes the odd elephant in the room and thinks that cynicism can be helpful, but I guess even a bit of me probably thought that something would… turn up.

In fact I’d go further than that. If we had a decent test and trace system in place, we had chosen a slightly different basket of measures as a country and we’d planned properly for what was obviously coming, a calming down of initial panics around house parties could probably have seen us able to cope with some household (in the now adapted form of the concept that includes chunks of halls) transmission.

But we are where we are – by decree or default, between Tier 3 and 4 in a matter of weeks – and I think the big question for the sector now is this.

If the state, and by proxy universities, are successful in basically operating minimum security prisons with lots of solitary confinement, what’s our plan now that millions have moved to our cities? Because if that plan is “for an hour a week they can see others in a visor”, then a) we can all guess that in most circumstances that hour is off in a few weeks time, and b) I just ask again, what about the rest of the week?

And all the dreams sing their song

I’m particularly concerned here about friendship and social capital. The early part of the pandemic involved online recreations of friendships already formed offline. But for new students (and those for whom the old friendships have faded), we now have a problem.

You know the old Robert Putnam stuff about bonding social capital (people like you) and bridging social capital (people not like you)? We’ve already effectively kissed goodbye to “bridging” social capital this year. And when it comes to bonding, I am particularly concerned about students living in a “household” where opportunities re bonding social capital are poor.

I’m talking LGBT+ students (who may well not be “out”) in a flat of straight people, working class students in an HMO of poshos, an Afro-Caribbean student living in a flat of white people, an Indonesian student in a flat full of Chinese students, a woman in a flat with five men… or worse, a student being harassed or bullied by those they live with.

Friends, colleagues and wider readers on Twitter have interesting angles.

  • One worries for the students in households which aren’t safe or are unhappy as even pre-pandemic unhappiness could boil over into significant bullying, nastiness and mental health detriment. We’d already been trying to get students to not just sit online.
  • Another says that given the amount of sexual assault in student residences there is a possibility of really terrible trauma for some too – particularly if it is combined with shame for breaking a rule in the first place so reporting it is even harder than usual.
  • Another is already picking up signs that their colleagues may misread enhanced academic engagement as “they’re OK” when it might signal the complete opposite.
  • Another has a daughter in a four room PBSA flat who’s just tested positive for Covid-19 and is desperate to leave. Another of the four already has. Even if universities muddle though, how many heavily leveraged PBSA providers do we think are going to survive a clutch of voids? And what happens then?

And in the daylight forever

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of being taken through a stunning piece of research from the University of Nottingham Students’ Union called “I just feel really misunderstood”, a qualitative study into EDI and marginalised groups (which is also incidentally a million miles away from the characterisation of SU work in that Adam Smith Institute report). There’s a blog coming soon.

What comes through vividly in the research is the importance of belonging – generally but specifically for marginalised groups. Because for students who already struggle to find others “like them”, a ban on mingling outside of your household for six months isn’t a minor inconvenience. It’s absolutely, crushingly, devastating in a way that many of us can’t really perceive if we’ve never experienced it on a prolonged basis.

Is it possible to make this work online? Maybe. I know that “distance learners have study buddies too” – but distance learners tend to still have their own life, and distance learners don’t tend to move into minimum security prisons to do it. You also have access to paid work in a minimum security prison.

To you I belong

What’s now becoming really clear is that once we’re through the first few weeks of moral panic about parties and so on, we’ll need a plan. I’m talking taskforce level stuff here – with proper engagement with the science, decent data, and some proper focus from this DfE sub committee of SAGE. It will need inputs that listen to students on their experiences, and put guidance out that considers risk from a student life point of view rather than a “stuff we run as a university” or “the hassle of late night policing” point of view.

Crucially, we simply cannot go six months with students meeting only the other people in their household face to face. The commuters need the networks and the escape to succeed. And for those away from home, if nothing else think about this for a minute. When in 2 months time, the local housing market starts pestering them into deciding which HMO to rent next year, who on earth do they decide to live with?

In a few weeks, students will need some contact – at just the point we’ve abandoned that in academic terms. The faster we come to terms with that, and either work out how to compensate some of them for the year’s rent, or find ways for all of them to meet others in a safe way, the better.

5 responses to “Who are students going to live with next year?

  1. Jim, thanks for this. You refer to ‘students meeting only the other members of their household face to face…’ In England at least, has guidance based on ‘households’ and household mixing been replaced by the ‘simple rule of six’?

  2. Martin – fair point – not really explained for brevity – technically you can go out in a six of people you don’t live with. Question is how would you have met them in the first place?

  3. This is very good. Beside the point maybe to the Covid urgency, ‘the belonging problem’ is I think the nub of the growth of the rise of student mental ill-health in recent years. Without wanting to invoke a larger critique, the growing scale of HE means that the personal attachments with like-minded and understanding friends, that are so important in day to day surviving and thriving are getting harder to find and maintain – vast lectures, vast halls of residence, in which mutually supportive friendships, and the ability for staff to ‘look out for’ students are much harder achieved.

    It shocks me, always, to find in my final year final term teaching that students in the room, in quite a narrowly defined subject area, and in a small class of about 40 mainly don’t know each other and haven’t met before. And, as an insider, the main advice I gave to my child when choosing a university/course was ‘find one with a small intake, and where you will be recognized and known by name by staff, and the other students on your course’. That is, somewhere that you will belong.

    As I say, perhaps a side issue in the here and now, but ‘the belonging problem’ is not to be lost track of ‘when this is all over….’

  4. Jim, you raise some very pertinent points in this great piece. Despite all the undoubted advances in supportive technologies, it feels a bit like when you see a TV ad for online bingo or casinos that try to manipulate a false sense of belonging: the view through the screen is entirely spurious. Feels like yet another form of hidden curriculum being played out here. One key question springs to mind – If HE institutions were properly state funded rather than being run as quasi ‘businesses’, would we still be insisting that students come on campus and into residences?

  5. Completely agree Bill. I watched Universities swell in size dramatically over the last 20 years. Students no longer belonged to a School or Department, they sit lectures, seminars and study spaces across the campus, there is no social space in the Department that can accommodate a year group and no one has time to organise anyway. Students are left to belong to the much more distant and nebulous ‘University’, which in the past often had very little interest in its students. Universities have spent years trying to catch up and foster that sense of interest and care, which is almost impossible at this scale.

    With this loss of belonging came the rise in mental health issues and COVID-19 is only going to make things worse, further isolating students and further straining their relationship with their University, as it struggles to get personal because of its size.

    I think your advice to you child is spot on…

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