Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole
Editor’s Note: The University recently announced plans to open up their campuses on 28th September.
In the last few days, the University of Manchester has confirmed that all learning will be online for the first term of the upcoming academic year, while Cambridge has gone so far as to go digital for the entirety of 2020/’21. But in a week when a new contact-tracing system, the likes of which was used to all but stopped the spread of the virus in South Korea, has been pledged for Britain, this is a grossly disproportionate response.
On 20th May, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, Carl Heneghan, predicted that the UK will likely soon see a sudden drop of Covid-19 deaths to such an extent that the Office for National Statistics will be reporting zero daily deaths by the end of June. Indeed Greece is so confident that Professor Heneghan is right that their government has proposed legislating for an ‘air bridge‘ to the UK to enable British holidaymakers to travel safely in the country without being subject to quarantine restrictions as early as June.
The future impacts of coronavirus spread further than jet-setting holidaymakers. In just four months, thousands of young adults will be preparing to head off to university, many for the first time. But there is currently a great amount of uncertainty surrounding this decision: Will my learning take place online? Will I be able to go out with friends? Will I be able to get a refund on my Southampton property rent?
For me, these uncertainties can be resolved in one swift decision by the University to announce that campuses will be reopening in time for the academic year 2020/’21. There are three principle reasons why such a decision would make scientific, economic, and moral sense.
Firstly, there is much scientific evidence being released to suggest that the public health effects of the coronavirus pandemic have passed their peak and will subside heavily in the coming months. As an example to complement the advice from Professor Heneghan, evidence from schools that have reopened across the globe suggests that learning environments comprised mostly of those not categorised as vulnerable are not hotbeds of viral infection, and as universities provide fewer contact hours than schools, it seems probable that there is even lower risk of the spreading of the virus in our educational facilities.
Secondly, many students in vulnerable financial positions have already committed themselves to fulfilling contractual obligations with letting agents and landlords in and around the city of Southampton under the reasonable assumption that the academic year at the University will be completed in person on physical campuses. The government is not at present providing any fiscal support to students who have entered such contracts, and because online learning would negate the necessity to live in the vicinity of the University, many students would be forced to pay two sets of rent: for one, unused, property in Southampton, and another in their home town. The transition to digital learning would heavily disrupt the already precarious financial positions of thousands of Southampton students.
Thirdly, every indication suggests that in the event of online-only learning for the academic year 2020/’21, students would be legally obliged to pay full tuition fees, despite losing access to physical contact hours, library facilities, and social time with peers. Mandating students to pay such a fee in light of the unstable economic circumstances in which we find ourselves would be grossly unfair, and should be taken into grave consideration before any decision to shut campus grounds is taken by the University.
Coronavirus has been deadly, and will continue to change the way we live our lives for years to come, but inappropriate, disproportionate responses such as closing university campuses to students for the entire academic year whilst schools reopen and businesses return to full operation would be absurd. Students worried about the future of their education should write to the Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President Education to express their concerns, and request urgently that the University of Southampton reopens as soon as possible.