News round-up: Students report feeling “abandoned” as the government debates their Christmas fate

As Covid cases across the UK rise exponentially, universities have quickly become virus hotspots. Students forced into quarantine have reported feeling “abandoned” by their universities, raising concerns about the mental health crisis that might be triggered by the “draconian” rules being enforced on campuses.

Call for contributors!

CDBU would like to expand their pool of blog writers. We are looking for a wide range of views and approaches to the current crisis facing universities. Please contact blog editor Becca Bashford at for more information.

Ministers plan pre-Christmas Covid lockdown for English universities – The Guardian, 14/10/2020

Ministers want to place universities in England into lockdown for two weeks before Christmas, with students told to remain on campus and all teaching carried out online, the Guardian has learned. Under the government’s plan, which is in its early stages, universities would go into lockdown from 8 December until 22 December, when all students would be allowed to return to their home towns.

“We are questioning whether there’s legal precedents to do this and treat students differently than the rest of the population, students just aren’t the homogenous group that the government seems to think they are. There are students of all ages, students with parents and carers, and what would this mean for students with jobs that they can’t do remotely? It just doesn’t feel like this has been thought through.”

Decision on pausing in-person university lectures due ‘shortly’ – BBC News, 14/10/2020

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “All students will be able to go home at Christmas if they so choose. However, if students are travelling home, we must ensure they do so in a way which minimises the risks of spreading the virus, and the date when universities must stop in-person teaching will be an important part of this. We will set out details on this shortly.”

Students handed coronavirus test kits that had already been used – Metro, 14/10/2020

Around 25 used coronavirus swab tests have been accidentally handed out in Birmingham, the council have confirmed. They were handed out in Selly Oak as part of Birmingham City Council’s drop off and collect service, the BBC reports. University of Birmingham students who then received the kits opened the boxes and found sealed bags inside. The council are now said to have carried out an investigation overnight, which found there was ‘no evidence of cross-contamination’ as a result of the mix-up.

NUS warns of rise in student anxiety due to university COVID restrictions – NME, 10/10/2020

“One of the students who came to our consultation earlier this week told us that 40 per cent of the calls to their mental health hotline were COVID-related. They were all feeling really anxious about the impact of COVID on them and their campus. In one of our surveys, students were telling us about the extent to which they were struggling and some students are de-prioritising their food shop in order to be able to afford basic necessities. It is scary to think that they are contemplating that right now during a pandemic.”

“It really was abandonment”: Virus crisis grips British universities – New York Times, 06/10/2020

British universities beckoned students to campus, fuelling outbreaks that are seeping into surrounding towns. The infection rate in Manchester is ten times as high as it was in August. The outbreaks have shone a harsh light on Britain’s decade-long campaign to turn higher education into a ruthless market. By cutting state grants and leaving schools dependent on tuition fees and room rents, the government encouraged them to jam more students onto campuses. The pandemic threatened to dry out that income stream. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government largely withheld the rescue money it gave to other industries, so universities carried on as normal, whatever the risks.

I escaped from uni when they tried to lock us down – and I have no regrets – Independent, 12/10/2020

One minute my new friends and I were enjoying the freedom of freshers, the next I was told halls were going to be on lockdown and I would be unable to leave my room for two weeks. The confusion that then overcame the halls was overwhelming. Students were running around with panic-packed bags, trying to find somewhere to escape their impending isolation. Hysterical students were booking Airbnbs and even more hysterical parents were coming to pick up their children. The police descended upon our halls to control the mass panic. They questioned the students about where they were staying and patiently dispersed large groups. Perhaps I should have seen it coming.

Confining students in halls is a mental health crisis in the making – The Guardian, 06/10/2020

We have spent the past decade in this country trying to get people to recognise that mental health is every bit as important as physical health. We already know that young people leaving home for the first time are at particular risk, at a time of huge change in their lives, and we also know that there’s an epidemic of mental ill health in their generation. And yet, despite knowing all this, thousands of our most vulnerable young people are right now alone, afraid and abandoned by the system. As my friend’s son points out: starting at a new school is scary – and the education system falls over itself to provide support and safety nets, to ensure that children’s worst nightmares don’t become a reality.

UCU threatens wider industrial action in bid to force move online – Times Higher Education, 13/10/2020

Unions have threatened UK universities with a fresh wave of industrial action as unrest over the return to face-to-face teaching pushes workplace relations to breaking point. Three branches of the University and College Union (UCU) – at the universities of Birmingham, Leeds and Warwick – have threatened industrial action if teaching is not moved online to help avoid the further spread of coronavirus.

‘Like baby food’: UK students’ lockdown complaints grow – The Guardian, 09/10/2020

Students in lockdown across Britain have complained about the cost and quality of the food provided by their universities, with some charged hundreds of pounds for meal packages including baked beans and instant noodles. With outbreaks recorded at more than 90 UK universities, some involving hundreds of people, the support provided by the institutions is coming under scrutiny. Students have said they are struggling to feed themselves since supermarket delivery services are inaccessible or limited, and kitchen facilities lack space to stockpile food for the two weeks for which they have to quarantine.

How working-class academics are set up to fail – Tribune, 13/10/2020

In my experience, university departments and academic staff get very uncomfortable when faced with the issue of social class. The further into postgraduate studies you go, and especially the further into struggling as an ERC you endeavour, the less ‘like you’ everybody appears to sound, think, and be. Any working-class ERC will tell you that the people around them – even if they’re coming up against the age of thirty – receive rent assistance. They have to, surely: they’re going on without funding, but they don’t have a job… I might not be a mathematics scholar, but something seems off about that.

On Quitting Academia – London Review of Books, 24/09/2020

University mottos, with all their classical hauteur, have been displaced by vapid slogans about discovering yourself and belonging to the future. Universities are centres of excellence, hubs of innovation, zones of enterprise. The gushing copy has limited relevance on the shop floor. Lecturers deserve more respect than is found in Dalek-like emails demanding 100 per cent compliance with this or that directive. An infinitely expanding bureaucratic universe displays authoritarian indifference to variety and nuance in the very work exalted in their promotional material. Vice-chancellors and deans always remember to give thanks and praise at graduation ceremonies and other festal moments; but what lecturers want is understanding, not least about the manifold claims on their time.

What will we learn as the academic year gets off to a very new start? – The National, 04/10/2020

This new term, I find myself wondering how much of good education is about this kind of human encounter. Most academics may not be professional performers – but everyone with an ear for music knows that listening to a record isn’t the same as a live gig. How important is the lived dimension of being in the same space together, responding not just to information, to raised hands and raised voices, but also to the eloquent human cues which tell you that you’ve lost your class, that your explanation isn’t landing, that this shy student has a point to make and will only find their voice with the proper encouragement? How do students forge new friendships and relationships with their new colleagues from afar? This October, I guess we’re going to find out.

The importance of student friendships – HEPI, 12/10/2020

Student friendship may on the face of it seem like a frivolous area of study, but anyone familiar with the literature on loneliness and belonging will know that it plays an important role in enabling students to fulfil their potential. Moreover, it offers plenty of scope to craft programmes and interventions that will improve the lives of students. Loneliness, as we discovered last year, affects over a quarter of first year students and is associated with significantly lower wellbeing. A sense of belonging has long been established as important to retention, motivation, academic achievement and wellbeing.

Universities are using surveillance software to spy on students – WIRED, 15/10/2020

Screwed over by the A-levels algorithm, new university students are being hit by another kind of techno dystopia. Locked in their accommodation – some with no means of escape – students are now being monitored, with tracking software keeping tabs on what lectures they attend, what reading materials they download and what books they take out of the library. Analysis of three popular learning analytics tools, which track student attendance at lectures, library visits and more, shows at least 27 universities across the UK use such software. The picture of how much intrusive tracking universities are relying on to monitor their students is opaque and has little oversight.

Universities plan secret seminars to tackle spies – The Times, 15/10/2020

Students could submit coursework anonymously and attend seminars without being identified under guidance issued today to tackle foreign interference in British universities. The guidance from Universities UK warns that extra-territorial jurisdiction has a “potentially chilling” effect on campuses. China’s national security law makes it an offence to make subversive statements about the Chinese Communist Party, regardless of citizenship or location. Online teaching during the pandemic exposes students and universities to greater risk, it suggests, because seminars could be secretly recorded and students and academics targeted for their views.

Governments are failing Black students – and rappers are picking up the slack – The Guardian, 14/10/2020

Rappers around the world, from Nipsey Hussle to Nines, have been selflessly giving for years; embedded in rap tradition is a refusal to forget where you came from, and enabling your community to reap the benefits of your success. There is an understanding that – although it can’t be forgiven – systemic racism and classism prevent adequate support from the state and, as a result, it falls on Black communities to provide for and support themselves. And in the UK, the unrelenting harshness and racism of the British education system – manifesting partly as disproportionate exclusion of Black pupils – and the cruelty of growing up in poverty has further necessitated this philanthropy.

York self-isolating students told ‘wait behind in fire’ – BBC News, 15/10/2020

Students self-isolating at the University of York have been told to wait in their room in the event of a fire and let others out first. The university’s Health and Safety Services told students to wait for a minute before leaving “to allow non-isolating individuals to exit”. In total 288 staff and students at the university have tested positive for coronavirus. The university said it had since “updated and changed” its guidance. However, it has not yet made it clear if the advice to self-isolating students is still applicable.

Nearly 1,000 students test positive in one week at Durham University – Metro, 15/10/2020

Almost 1,000 people at Durham University have tested positive for coronavirus in a week. The Uni said 958 students and six staff were diagnosed with Covid-19 in the seven days up to Wednesday, October 14. That means the campus outbreak now accounts for a significant number of the new cases across the whole of County Durham. In a statement, a spokesman explained: ‘Over the last seven days, the number of reported positive coronavirus cases in students and staff has been steady, with approximately 100-150 new reported cases each day. ‘We are proactively and regularly monitoring and managing the situation with local and national public health experts and taking appropriate action where required.’