Written by Trinity Barnatt
University students left their university accommodation in the thousands in December, after government guidelines allowed them to return home for the holidays. With new lockdown regulations though, many are being forced to make the tough decision between remaining where they are, and paying for empty accommodation, or breaking government guidelines to return to university.
As well as those studying on exempt courses, students can return “if you do not have access to appropriate alternative accommodation, facilities, studying space, or you need to return for health reasons,” according to communication from the University of Leicester’s PCV Education, Graham Wynn. Anyone who does choose to return must have at least two negative COVID tests before accessing any university facilities though, apart from their own accommodation.
The overwhelming message though is to stay where you are, whatever your circumstance. Leicester Student Magazine spoke to students who have returned to see what had influenced their decision.
Georgia Hilton-Buckley (3rd year, Politics) returned to her privately rented accommodation the day after the lockdown announcement, feeling that it was a relatively low-risk decision because she was returning to an empty house.
Currently in the process of writing her dissertation, Georgia’s main reason for returning was a lack of suitable work space at home:
“With such an important workload I didn’t want to compromise my results, especially without a safety net implemented to protect my grade,” she said. While the University have introduced an Educational Safeguard for 2021, a safety net has yet to be confirmed.
For Georgia, the significance of being in her final year outweighed the need to follow government advice because she wants to “live the uni life before it’s all over in a few months.”
Rent payments are another reason students have been returning to Leicester. With no plans to suspend or reduce rent payments for student accommodation, students across the country are expected to pay for houses/rooms they are unable to live in. This has led to rent strikes across the country with over 45 universities involved. While University of Leicester’s students have not committed to these strikes, the calls for something to be done are growing.
One postgraduate student (who wishes to remain anonymous) is paying upwards of £400 a month for her student house, on top of their tuition fees. As her student loan doesn’t cover her living costs, her financial stresses are already significant.
“Not being able to live in the house I was paying for left me feeling even more frustrated and depressed,” they said.
Students are also comfortable returning because they feel they are in a low-risk group. As Rhiannon Jenkins (3rd year, English) said “all my housemates are able-bodied with no underlying health conditions, so the risk factor in returning felt very low.”
Similar to Georgia, Rhiannon returned because she was unable to work at home and needed to finish her dissertation for a January 8th deadline.
The anonymous student explained that she felt safe returning because her entire household took COVID tests to ensure they were negative before returning.
“I don’t feel as though I’m posing any threat to the community,” they said, adding that she has a second follow-up test booked as well.
All the students LSM spoke to also pointed out that they are following other lockdown rules strictly, only leaving the house for food shopping and exercise, as they would at home.
Finally, when asked about whether students feel supported by the university during the new lockdown, the University was far from praised.
“I’ve been supported by my department, definitely. My personal tutor is in regular contact and our department hosts weekly zoom hangouts. But the university itself – I feel let down,” Rhiannon expressed.
Professors and tutors are being credited on supporting their students as much as they can. However, the University’s Ignite learning approach is being criticised significantly.
“I was supposed to have nine face-to-face contact hours in the first term, when teaching moved to the online ‘ignite’ system, this changed to two hours over zoom. A three hour seminar is now being squeezed into one hour over zoom. I just don’t understand!” Georgia said.
It’s safe to say that most students don’t feel online teaching is of the same quality as in person teaching. For this reason a safety net was the most common request when asked what more they would like to be done by the University. Currently, the Students Union is working on a plan to try and implement a safety net for student grades at the University of Leicester, but any results are yet to be seen.
Despite a mostly negative reaction to the university’s response to the lockdown, our anonymous student compared her experience to a friends at the University of Birmingham:
“They’ve received far less support and not been able to book test upon returning and their university has been very vague and unhelpful in emails.”
They went on to express their appreciation for the quick email received from the University after the Prime Minister’s lockdown announcement.
Overall, it seems that these students have made sensible decisions, best for themselves and their studies. When students are using the testing facilities available to them, following lockdown regulations and prioritising their studies, it’s difficult to argue that their decision was irresponsible or unnecessary.
If the government want to demand students not return to University then they need to implement a grade safety net, suspend rent payments and allow for more student support in creating effective study environments at home.
Trinity Barnatt is a first year English student at University of Leicester, originally from Bourne, Lincolnshire. You can find her on Instagram here: @trinity_b._
Image by bantersnaps, from Unsplash.