University promises students the chance to meet new people, explore a new campus and make the most of freshers’ week.
But for thousands attending this year, the reality will be very different.
Universities are gambling with their students’ health as hundreds of Covid‑19 cases hit campuses. The scale of the crisis is huge—and growing rapidly.
Already over a thousand students across Scotland have been advised to self-isolate in their university accommodation. And there were 87 confirmed virus cases at the University of Liverpool before term even began.
Jade is a first year at York St John University. They arrived at their university accommodation just under two weeks ago.
Jade told Socialist Worker that they recently discovered that a housemate had been showing Covid-19 symptoms. All the residents of their flat went into isolation, in accordance with government guidelines.
But Jade said that the university hasn’t helped them at all.
“We’ve been emailing the university for help and advice in our isolation but so far we’ve got nothing back,” said Jade. “They aren’t even helping us with the stuff we need, like food.”
Jade added that students are struggling to get hold of any Covid-19 tests, effectively leaving all of the housemates in isolation limbo.
“To add to this we’re getting an international student moving into our flat, where they have been told to isolate,” Jade said. “But they’ll still have to share a kitchen with us. What is the sense in that? We are already isolating because someone has symptoms.
“Everything feels so unorganised and rushed without any proper safety measures.”
Jade is just one of thousands of students—often living away from their parents for the first time—who have to isolate in university accommodation.
The Tories had assured students that it would be safe to go to universities. They claimed it was “highly unlikely” that there would be any significant outbreaks of Covid-19 as a result. It took just days for their lies to fall apart.
A major outbreak at Glasgow university had seen 172 students test positive by Thursday of last week. On Wednesday the figure was 124—and the university said the real number was likely to be “much higher”.
Over 600 students are now isolating in their accommodation.
And the university has warned that students found to be breaking restrictions could risk losing their accommodation or be suspended.
Grant is a second year archaeology and history student at Glasgow. He told Socialist Worker that he’s disappointed with the university’s response, but not surprised.
“There were 1,100 students at the freshers week,” he said. “What has happened was entirely foreseeable and avoidable.
“The university had all summer to prepare for this. But they just didn’t.”
Another Glasgow student told BBC News that people were mixing because they “weren’t going to stay in their kitchens and not do anything. I don’t think people were being too wildly un‑sensible,” they added.
Laura is studying psychology and neuroscience. She told Socialist Worker that the university had assured students that it was “safe to come”.
“I don’t think the university has the facilities to deal with hundreds of students isolating,” she said. “Some people have to share a kitchen between 12 people—how can the university make it safe for them?”
Grant added, “Student accommodation here should have never been opened up again.”
In Dundee over 500 students were told to isolate in their accommodation at Abertay University after one student tested positive for the virus.
All were living in Parker House, a private hall of residence owned by a firm called IQ student accommodation. Owen Wright, former student union president of the university, told Socialist Worker about his worries about those isolating in Parker House.
“The university will be doing their best to support students, no doubt,” he said. “The worry is that, from experience, privately-owned student halls tend to be quite cramped, especially those on the cheaper side.”
Owen said this “is not good for mental or physical health over long periods”.
“There’s this philosophy of packing as many people together as possible for a profit, which can lead to outbreaks,” he added.
“The issue of crammed, expensive accommodation feels like a problem with the student accommodation industry as a whole.”
Coronavirus outbreaks at English universities have so far received less attention than those in Scotland. Many universities seem to be in the dark about the numbers testing positive for the virus —and this is causing increased anxiety.
One worried mother of a student wrote to the University of Leeds to say that her daughter knew 38 people who had tested positive for the virus.
A spokesman for the university said, “Since the start of September the university has been made aware of six positive tests for Covid-19 among our students and staff.
“We are not currently aware of any others.”
But as more students start the academic year, the prospect of more outbreaks seems sadly inevitable.
Student parties are not what’s spreading Covid-19
Students who have been put at risk of contracting the virus are now being blamed for university outbreaks.
Newspapers have been full of lurid and sensationalised stories about students having parties at their homes.
Last week National Clinical Director of the Scottish government Jason Leitch told students that it was “absolutely imperative that you don’t have parties”.
Emily is a student living in halls of residence at the University of Plymouth. She said it isn’t right to blame student parties for the recent outbreaks.
“At my university nothing has really been arranged for students to do in their first few weeks—not even any socially distanced events,” she said. “Unfortunately people are bored and isolated, and want to socialise.”
Even with restrictions in place, putting hundreds of students who have travelled from different areas into cramped blocks of flats will inevitably lead to outbreaks.
“Only a month ago the Tories were telling people that it was fine to go back to pubs, eat out and have fun,” said Emily.
“After that they blamed young people for a second wave. Now I bet they are going to blame students for doing exactly what they said it was alright to do.”
The blame for the outbreaks lies with universities that assured students that they would still be able to enjoy their university experience during a pandemic.
And it also lies with the Tory government that told students it was safe to go in the first place.
Accommodation is a rent racket
The outbreaks in university halls of residence could have been avoided if they hadn’t been open in the first place.
But there is big money to be made in student accommodation. The purpose-built student accommodation industry in Britain was estimated to be worth over £50 billion last year. And on average students pay £126 a week in rent.
This year some university accommodation providers even opened their doors early.
And it’s not only private companies that make big money from students. According to the government, 20 percent of students live in accommodation owned by their universities.
A pandemic won’t get in the way of business and universities trying to grab cash from students—no matter the cost.
‘We need to relight resistance’
Lectures on Zoom will become all too familiar for students this year. The UCU education union has called for all lectures to be online, where possible.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that universities must “stop selling the lie to students that they can have a full university experience in the current crisis”.
But the union, and students, have also raised concerns about the lack of support for students to study at home.
Grant said that he’s worried about the impact the virus will have on his studies.
“I can’t work at home,” he said. “I contacted my university multiple times to ask if there would be a safe and socially distanced place that I can work in. They’ve said there is. But I’m worried the whole campus will be shut soon.”
Grant said that students “didn’t sign up to do a year of online studies”. And many are angry at having to pay high fees for a different type of education.
But students shouldn’t pay fees at all—whether they are learning in physical lectures or online. And students should fight for quality education, however it is delivered.
For universities however, the priority is keeping the money rolling in. Lower enrolment among international students will cause the biggest loss to university profits this year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
But Laura, an EU national studying in Glasgow, thinks her university is doing all it can to avoid losing out.
“International students from inside the EU or otherwise have been told it’s safe to come back and that everything would be fine,” she said. “But it’s not safe.
“At the University of Glasgow students from outside Scotland are paying a lot more for tuition.
“Universities are run as a business—this is a perfect example of how businesses work. A second thought isn’t given to our safety or our education.”
This crisis is exposing how universities put profit above the wellbeing and education of students. But students can fight back.
The fight over climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement were led predominantly by young people. Students can use this same energy to organise on campus.
Some have already started. A group of students at Glasgow university is calling for a rent strike to challenge university “negligence”. Others could follow.
Alex, a student at Lancaster, said, “We need to relight a fire of resistance among students that we saw before the summer. There are students who are angry about this situation. It’s our job as socialists to try to bring them together.”
And Grant said students must stand in solidarity with university staff against the coming jobs onslaught.
“The worry is that the pandemic will be used as an excuse to cut staff,” he explained. “We must be prepared to come out to show solidarity.”