This blog responding to the Government’s Statement on students’ return to university campuses was kindly contributed by Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Portsmouth.
The Government has rightly committed to prioritising education through the pandemic. So with schools and further education colleges resuming in-person teaching on 8 March, it is unfathomable that in-person teaching for all university students will not recommence until 17 May at the earliest. That this date is after many universities will have finished their teaching year shows a Government with a cavalier disregard for details. This isn’t good enough.
Students’ education has been disrupted, their term-time employment lost and they have been ordered not to occupy accommodation they have paid for. Their wellbeing and mental health has suffered and they will almost certainly graduate into a very difficult economic climate. They are entitled to expect that the Government makes their interests a top priority as the country returns to normal. In refusing to permit in-person teaching students are being treated like second-class citizens.
It is true that some students – those on practical, or practice-based courses – are having in-person teaching now but most, about one million, are not, and it is unclear why.
Quite unreasonably, some people see students as irresponsible super-spreaders who need to be kept away from the rest of us. Throughout the pandemic the overwhelming majority of students have behaved very well and, like you and I, can now go to the pub, get a tattoo or drive cross-country for a self-catered holiday. The only thing most cannot do is access in-person teaching – an activity that, as it occurs in highly managed COVID-secure environments, is far safer than almost anything else they can now do.
Even those convinced that students are feckless super-spreaders must accept that permitting in-person teaching will not materially increase the risk it is imagined students pose. And any fear of a mass return of students to their university towns and cities is misplaced. The ONS estimates that about three-quarters of students are already at their term-time address. Any mass return has already happened and seems to have gone unnoticed.
Giving students this one right to in-person teaching could be a huge benefit to them while posing minimal risk to everyone else. So why won’t the Government permit it? While it can be tempting to think they are not ‘following the science’ the truth is that these kinds of decisions can never be based on science alone.
Governments must balance competing political, economic and social priorities. For this Government, it seems that university students’ education is a low political priority. Just how low is illustrated by the fact that despite mentioning beer, beer gardens, and pubs in his 5 April announcement on the country’s steps out of lockdown, the Prime Minister made no reference to students at all.
Like everyone else students can be expected to make sacrifices in the pandemic – and they have. But as things improve, they can also expect the Government to prioritise their educational and emotional needs. This has not happened.
Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist while they have their body decorated, but they cannot do the same thing in a COVID-secure environment with their university lecturer. Prime Minister, can we have our students back please?