Becky Ricketts, President of the National Union of Students Wales
Eat out to help out! Return to the office! Get the economy moving again!
It’s fair to say that the UK Government’s message since lockdown eased has been unambiguous: let’s get back to normality.
So I was surprised to see Matt Hancock, England’s health secretary, blaming young people for the recent rise in coronavirus cases across the UK.
Attributing the virus’ resurgence to the actions of under-30s is pure distractionism from a government that must have known its economy-first policies would increase the likelihood of a second wave.
It’s no coincidence that Hancock’s intervention and England’s new ‘rule of six’ come just weeks before hundreds of thousands of students travel across the UK to return to university campuses.
So, if the transmission rate continues to rise, it’s very easy to see the blame being shifted directly onto the shoulders of students.
In Wales we can’t fall into the trap of making students a coronavirus scapegoat. Instead, the Welsh Government and universities must focus their efforts on making sure students are safe and helping them through what will be a uniquely difficult academic year.
The class of 2020 will have to get used to doing things very differently, but there’s no getting away from the fact that many students will struggle with a lack of face-to-face contact.
Throughout this crisis, students have been actively encouraged to return to campuses come September, and they’ve been told to expect in-person teaching.
It’s now clear that this will be minimal. Freshers’ weeks and other social events – often the highlight of a student’s first few weeks on campus – have been stripped back or moved online. And when they get down to studying, they’ll find that a lot of teaching will also be delivered over the internet.
Students have committed to tuition fees and loans, committed to moving away from home, and committed to year-long housing contracts. Some are now rightly asking: For what?
For a lot of students, university is their first time living away from home – and it can be tough. To do this in the middle of a pandemic though, with restrictions on socialising and the chance of prolonged spells of isolation, poses a threat not just to students’ physical health, but their mental health too.
We shouldn’t be telling freshers to come to university to live in small rooms – often in cold, unpleasant student accommodation – without providing them with extra support.
Similarly, we shouldn’t be telling international students to quarantine for 14 days on arrival without providing them with extra support.
We’re already in the midst of a student mental health crisis, with disclosures and diagnoses rising year-on-year. Covid-19 threatens to make the crisis even worse, so universities must focus on making regular contact and giving every student the support they need to get through the year.
Anyway, students aren’t just 18-year-old undergrads. They’re a cross-section of society – parents, carers, people vulnerable to the virus. Making lazy generalisations about who students are will only increase anti-student sentiment and deepen social divisions. It’s the last thing we need as a society.
Six months into the pandemic, students know how important it is that they act responsibly and within the law. But this runs both ways – it’s just as important that universities act on their responsibility to safeguard staff and students.
Students and young people have been hit hard by this pandemic. They lost income during lockdown, their mental health has suffered during isolation, and they face an uncertain future as we enter the biggest recession in history.
With the academic year a matter of days away now, those in positions of power must act responsibly and avoid playing the blame game over the pandemic.
Like most people, students have had a difficult year and face much uncertainty in 2020-21. They deserve universities’ support, they deserve politicians’ support, and they deserve the public’s support.