Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 37, October 3, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Students Take a Stand

Students Face Unprecedented Covid-19 Lockdown Measures

Universities across Britain are reporting outbreaks of Covid-19 as students return to campus and new students move into halls to begin their first year. Students are being told to isolate en masse in accommodation blocks at a number of universities.

A particularly sharp spike in cases broke out at Manchester Metropolitan University, where 127 students tested positive. There city has itself emerged as a recent hotpot, and its already-high infection rate of 93.2 per 100,000 people estimated in the week up to September 15, had risen to 185.6 the following week, with new positive tests rising from 515 to 1,026 over that fortnight.

Two of the university's accommodation blocks, at Birley campus and Cambridge Halls, have been placed into a 14-day lockdown, affecting around 1,700 students.

In a response characterised by imposition, students received no warning of the impending lockdown and are now trapped in their halls of residence. The only response appears to be that of force.

"We were getting ready to go out and looked out to security and police outside the halls," one student said. "They say we can't leave. We haven't received any emails from the university about this and they seem to be holding us in against our will."

The university has threatened disciplinary action for any breaches of isolation. "We've been told, if we leave, we can't come back," said another student.

Parker Halls of Residence, Dundee

It is also evident that there was no proper forward planning for such an outbreak. The university said it was "urgently preparing a care package" and financial support for affected students to ensure they had the essentials they needed.

"We're struggling to get food because everyone is trying to order it at the same time," say students. "We had eight hours to go get food to last us for two weeks."

Morale is "really low" and "lots of people are very angry". Locked-in students have been sticking home made banners and placards to windows in protest.

In Scotland, 600 students at Glasgow University were instructed to isolate after 100 cases were confirmed, while in Durham, all 500 students at an accommodation block were quarantined after a single case.

"The NUS has long called for online learning to be the default, and the government must urgently invest in digital infrastructure and tackle digital poverty so that all students can continue to access their education remotely. We also need them to get a functional test-and-trace system in place on campuses and adequate funding to tackle the student mental health crisis," said NUS president Larissa Kennedy.

Regarding the situation in Manchester, the NUS called for students being able "to return to their families if they wish, as being trapped in university accommodation will only add anxiety at an already difficult time," adding that "all students affected must be supported by their universities with food deliveries, shopping and access to mental health services if needed."

The University and College Union echoed the NUS. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the situation in Manchester was "the latest catastrophe in a week where wholly predictable - and predicted - Covid outbreaks have caused havoc on campuses across the UK."

"We warned last month of the problems with moving thousands of students across the country and the time has come for urgent action from ministers and universities to protect staff and students," she said, adding to calls to cancel in-person teaching until the test-and-trace system significantly improves.

Prof Mark Woolhouse of the government's pandemic modelling group called the outbreak amongst students "entirely predictable" and that it was "inevitable there would be some spread", particularly in halls of residence and face-to-face classes. Students were not to blame for the situation, he said. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) also warned of "significant outbreaks" in the universities, it is reported.

Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden insisted that students should not "give up a year of their life" by not going to university. "They are going to university and paying the fees accordingly," he declared.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has refused to rule out preventing students from returning home over Christmas and New Year.

The crisis of the spread of the virus in the universities has arisen in a context where the whole approach taken by the government to the pandemic has been one of supposedly balancing risks and benefits. In this case, this issue is presented as offsetting the risks of increasing the spread against the cost of missing being physically present at university - the face-to-face teaching, interaction, the overall university experience, and so on. Added into the mix is the lucrative market in student housing.

The irrationality of posing things in this way is starkly revealed in the absurd situation that has now been reached, where students are occupying halls of residence, where they are studying online and in isolation as if at home, yet in a condition of seriously increased vulnerability. These students are currently getting none of the benefits and all of the risks.

Education is not in fact a matter of balance, but, as students themselves have established through the struggle for welfare and in opposition to ever-rising fees over recent years and decades, a right that governments have to guarantee whatever the circumstances. This is not something that contradicts the collective interest, but is fundamentally in harmony with the needs of society.

With the overall aim being the well-being of the people, of which education is a vital component part, an approach can be found that allows students and universities to contribute to stopping, rather than spreading, the virus. This is something that itself forms part of the university experience in this period. At all times, the university experience - rather than the pursuit of narrow self-interest that is promoted amongst and foisted upon students to deprive them of an outlook - has to include enabling students to take up their social responsibility, and in the present, this is crucial.

The fact is that universities were reopened in the midst of a developing second wave, where the growth in the infection rate had already become exponential and a number of hotspots had already emerged. They have not been reopened in conditions where the virus is under control, and unions' and experts' warnings have gone unheeded. Instead, students are being attacked and demonised, and subjected to heavy police powers.

It is the government, which refuses to engage with lecturers and their unions, or to put the well-being of staff and students as the guiding principle of their actions, and which makes everything an issue simply of law and order, that is irresponsible. The solution lies in mobilising the human factor, the social consciousness, of students, university staff, and those in the surrounding communities at large, so that they are empowered to work out collectively how to provide and receive education, to look after each others' needs so that none are left to fend for themselves, in a manner that guarantees their mutual well-being and the health and safety of all.


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