Andreas Papamichail By: Andreas Papamichail
Lecturer in Global Health & International Relations
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24 Sep 2020 : The COVID University

Ten days ago, I helped my sister move into halls at a university in Scotland, where she has just started an undergraduate degree. As expected, it was a surreal experience. She was given a one-hour slot in which to arrive, and we barely saw a soul as we lugged those big blue IKEA bags with pots, pans, duvet, laundry basket and more student essentials up the stairs. There was no one else in her flat. We went to the nearest supermarket and stocked up. Back to the flat. Still no flatmates. Went out for coffee. Back to the flat. Not a person in sight. Eventually I had to leave, thankfully receiving a text from her thirty minutes later that her first flatmate had arrived, easing my elderly sibling fears that she was going to be sat all alone on her first night of living away from home.

Two days later, that flatmate texts the rest of the flat that she has to self-isolate because she’s been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID. Now, a week later, thousands of students across the UK are in quarantine, including five hundred at Abertay University and six hundred at Glasgow. Students in Scotland have been banned from socialising; no mixing with other households, no visits to bars, pubs, restaurants, cafés.

But of course this was going to happen, right? It was so predictable. Students and families travelling all across country, many of whom will have travelled internationally like my sister, then thrown together in halls where they cannot help but come into contact with many besides their immediate flatmates (in corridors, laundry rooms, on stairs), and of course some will socialise beyond the confines of their flat.

My sister knew all these risks, and presumably most of the other students did too. But they were told face-to-face teaching was going ahead. Her university and many other universities are clinging to that even now. Meanwhile, over on Twitter, contributors to these diaries are taking bets on how soon they’ll all be forced to move everything online. A week from now? Two? Maybe three? It’s a matter of time. But, the universities have pocketed the international student fees, the private accommodation companies have taken a full years rent off all those students who’ll now be spending a lot of time cooped up in their box rooms (with suggestions that they may not be allowed to leave halls over the winter break), and can now conveniently blame the shutting down of face-to-face teaching on partying students.

It’s money-driven and cynical (and yet more evidence that higher education should be publicly funded) and, as Owain wrote a few days back, rests on a false premise that the outbreaks among the student population will be contained and leave them unscathed. But not all students live in halls, far away from elderly or vulnerable family members; not all students are young; not all students are free of underlying health conditions; not all won’t suffer from long-COVID complications; and none are completely isolated from their surrounding communities.

What angers me the most is that my sister and all the new students understand that this is an unprecedented year to be starting university. Had she been told from the outset that the first term would be online, she still would have started. Partly because from next year EU students will be paying £18,000+ to come to the UK for their studies (a whole other, but related, can of worms), but also because she has been excited to start university and in truth there is not much for a 19-year old to do in a pandemic year. Work where? Travel where? So she still would have started, but she and others could have done that remotely without putting themselves and others, students and non-students alike, at risk.

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