Ministers should allow all university students to leave their “childhood bedrooms” and return to their friends in term-time accommodation to boost their mental health and provide stability, students say.
The Government has been accused of “repeatedly ignoring” university students and failing to prioritise education at a time when businesses, such as pub gardens and salons, have been allowed to reopen.
The criticism came after the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that all remaining students in England will not be allowed to return to in-person lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.
A parliamentary petition calling for students not to be “sidelined again” and to be allowed to return to campus at the start of the summer term has attracted more than 9,000 signatures since Monday afternoon.
Student Isobel Cook, one of the founders of the petition, told the PA news agency: “It’s disappointing to hear that, with the easing of lockdown in so many areas and with the shops and the pubs all open, that still education is not being prioritised in the way that we hope to see.”
The second-year modern languages and philosophy student said: “There’s still scope to say that people could return to university (now), but have virtual teaching which was the case for a lot of people in the autumn term.
“Because by being in the accommodation you still get that sense of support from other students.”
The updated guidance for universities says: “Wherever possible, providers should not ask students to return to their term time accommodation before they return to in-person teaching and learning.”
But students who need additional mental health support, or who do not have access to appropriate study spaces in vacation accommodation, have been allowed to return to term-time accommodation.
Ms Cook, who is the JCR President of New College at Oxford University, said she is “very worried” about the impact of Covid on students’ mental health.
The 19-year-old said: “There’s definitely something about being supported by people of your own age doing the same thing as you which you just can’t get at home no matter what your family situation is.”
Katie Chambers, a second-year English student at Cambridge University, told PA that the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health “scares” her.
She said: “I’ve lost two friends to suicide in periods of isolation in lockdown.
“Especially with such a lucky demographic to be very unlikely to die from Covid, I’ve been more scared about that side of things having lost two friends.
“It seems to have been considered too little in all this I think.
“There hasn’t been as much talk about it as there should have been.”
Ms Chambers said she wished ministers would prioritise allowing all students to return to university accommodation before May 17 amid mental health concerns so they can “escape their childhood bedrooms” and be with friends.
She told PA: “Zoom is very difficult to do a degree properly on and I think a lot of us feel like we’re being charged too much, that the normal fees for a Zoom education is a bit wrong.”
But the 20-year-old added: “The thing we really miss is being at our accommodation and I personally think that delaying students returning to paid accommodation until May 17, when moving house was legal during lockdown and students were going to school and switching households between school and home was allowed, seems weird.”
Most students in England, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January.
University students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8.
It is estimated that around half of university students in England are currently not eligible to return to in-person teaching until May 17 at the earliest.
When announcing the decision, universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “The movement of students across the country poses a risk for the transmission of the virus, particularly because of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of new variants.”
But recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that around three-quarters of students (76%) are living at the same address as they were at the start of the autumn term.
On the Government’s decision to delay the return due to the risks posed by mass movement, Ms Cook said: “I mean it doesn’t feel particularly genuine to me within the context that the Government has made their own decision independently to open non-essential retail and everything.
“It doesn’t feel appropriate at that point that they would not let the minority, like the 24% or so, who have been waiting so patiently for so long that they wouldn’t have been back.”
She added: “I have some very close friends at home waiting to return who maybe didn’t fit into the exemptions at the beginning when they were introduced, but over time have had such a tough time at home that they have started thinking about maybe they could apply for a mental health exemption because it’s been that difficult.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, said: “The students are right.
“It is very odd how only the UCU and the Government seem to think the opposite.
“The overwhelming majority of students are back at their term-time addresses already, as shown in our recent poll.
“This fact, combined with the fact that well-ventilated and socially-distanced teaching is considered to be relatively safe, mean ministers have called this one wrong.
“We were told education would be prioritised over other areas of life as lockdown eased, which is how it should be if we are to be fair to young people who have suffered so much in the crisis.
“It is a great shame that is not now happening.”
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK), said it was “really disappointing news” for university students in England that they will not be allowed to return to campus until mid-May.
She told Times Radio: “This… is a very stressful and difficult time of year for students, the exams are coming up, and this is a time when students need to have contact with their teachers, they want to benefit from being able to have those one-to-one conversations with teachers, as the exams are approaching.
“And of course also we have to think a lot about their mental health and wellbeing.
“We know very well that there’s good evidence from a number of studies, young people’s mental health and wellbeing have suffered incredibly during the pandemic and we know that students are better when they are with their friends and of course, that’s what they want.”
Ms Donelan has convened a working group of representatives from the higher education and health sectors to specifically address mental health.
The Department for Education (DfE) has asked the Office for Students to allocate an additional £15 million towards student mental health through proposed reforms to teaching grant funding.
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