If you read the British press, particularly its online iteration, you would be forgiven for thinking students are solely to blame for coronavirus transmission in university cities.
Take this Mail Online headline from the 16th of September – “Students IGNORE Rule of Six in nightclub queue”. Never mind the fact that most students weren’t even at university on the 16th of September; never mind the fact that the Mail can hardly have checked the student card of every member of the queue; never mind the fact that nightclubs aren’t even open.
This is gutter journalism, aimed solely at generating clicks by targeting students.
Not all students are obeying the rules. Many are still having house-parties, whilst freshers in particular are regularly inviting visitors to their university halls. Some students have even visited pubs after having tested positive. This is inexcusable.
And, statistically, coronavirus rates in England are higher amongst those aged between 17 and 24 – anecdotally, it is true that many students have, or have had, coronavirus. Many of my friends at university have been forced to self-isolate, usually after attending parties.
Not all students
But there are two problems with coverage of student non-compliance. Firstly, it drags all students through the mud. Students are typically depicted as scruffy and self-absorbed, and the concept of careless undergraduates spreading coronavirus to their long-suffering host cities is an easy stereotype to seize upon.
Of course, many students are obeying the rules to the letter or even beyond; a significant number suffer from health conditions and are forced to shield, yet are chucked into the “selfish student” category.
Secondly, university students are being singled out. It’s not just students who are flouting the rules, but newspapers aren’t criticising schoolkids for mass kickabouts with their mates; they don’t swoop in with their cameras when Nancy visits her granny Doris.
Meeting elderly relatives, who tend to suffer far more severely from Covid-19, is far more dangerous than student-on-student mingling. Most students in university towns don’t even interact with anyone over the age of twenty-five.
I mean, realistically, what did the powers that be expect to happen? Sending young people from all over the country into small areas – space-efficient first-year accommodation or tightly packed terraced houses – is at the very best tempting fate, at the very worst criminally careless.
Netflix and ill
Students have already suffered heavily from the pandemic. Whilst few are at risk of severe illness from Covid-19, the impact of months of isolation upon mental health has been devastating. Placements have been delayed or cancelled; years abroad have vanished; and degrees that were already poor value for money are now online only. I pay over nine thousand pounds a year for six contact hours a week – six hours of sitting, hunched over my laptop, staring at a screen.
I’m aware that many students are privileged, but the system does not work, and instead of taking the opportunity to reform the sector, universities have tried to pretend everything is normal, and the government have backed them up.
If the government was serious about stopping student transmission, they would have sent all learning online and asked students to stay at home. Instead, they have allowed students to move in their droves across the country, then kept quiet as the press have torn into us.
Have soaring rates been caused by students? Partly.
But they are, in the vast majority of cases, not our fault, and certainly not completely our fault. It’s hardly the case that only students socialise. Walk into a pub in Birmingham, Bradford or Barrow, and you’ll probably see groups of three adult men. The odds of these drinkers being from the same household are so small as to be utterly miniscule – not that any papers will tear into them.
Universities were already in a state. The higher education sector is becoming ever-more business-oriented; students are pawns, to be charged a fortune, used as bargaining chips in lecturers’ entirely justifiable strikes, and expected to cope with sub-standard communication.
And then comes the pandemic, altering university life beyond recognition. No inter-university sport; no nights out; little or no in-person teaching (all correct decisions, by the way); ghost campuses. Freshers in flats of more than six cannot even go outside together. The response? The press steams in to attack an easy target; students are the harbingers of the virus, the middle-class druggies coming to kill your granny.
This simply isn’t true – rates were already well on the rise before students returned to university, and not all universities in the country are in the North West, North East, or Yorkshire and the Humber.
Students aren’t blameless, but we aren’t blameworthy above all other groups, either. We’ve been let down by our leaders, encouraged to return to university cities, lured in with false promises of face-to-face teaching, then lambasted when we do. I’m sick of being demonised by the press – I love Leeds, but this reporting puts a barrier up between students and local residents.
There’s an increasing cultural disconnect between students and their university cities, and this media bile must stop if that disconnect is to be reversed – and if students are to feel truly at home.