'It’s a mistake to stop students returning to in person university teaching'

It is now just over a year since the first Covid lockdown began. The end of the restrictions is in sight – last week the country took the second step on the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.

Thursday, 22nd April 2021, 12:00 am
Back to studying?

But whilst the population at large is busy booking haircuts, visiting their local gym and browsing the shops, for students the latest update from government on student returns is extremely disappointing.

Last week, the government issued further guidance to universities advising that there should be no wider return to on-campus in-person teaching for students until 17 May. This is a mistake.

A mid-May return takes us near to the end of the academic year and is out of kilter with f urther education and schools, who returned to face-to-face learning more than a month ago.

As in-person activities resume across the retail and leisure sectors and restrictions on travel within England are lifted, students will feel rightly angry about further delay to their return to university campuses, however effective remote learning has been.

For those of us who work in universities – indeed, throughout education – there is an overwhelming moral concern given the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on young people.

Covid is a disease which has been most severe in the already vulnerable, and we have rightly imposed tough measures to protect them.

Every sector of society has suffered in what is now a full year of restrictions. We’ve asked – and rightly so – young people to put their lives on hold for what must feel to them an enormous part of it.

The sacrifices we have asked them to make include hugely disrupted education, social lives, cultural experiences, the ability to explore locally, nationally or globally. The losses are in delayed and lost learning, in lost part-time jobs, in lost travel opportunities, lost social experiences. These losses will be measured in years to come.

So far, the government’s response to this has been inadequate for the young. Support for the two million students who have lost jobs and paid rent for accommodation they cannot use has been made available, but at a total of £70m it doesn’t begin to meet the scale of need.

The budget for addressing lost learning in schools is more – at about £1bn – but that’s a small fraction of the near £30bn cost of the education budget for a year.

By contrast, something over £20bn was spent on an inadequate test and trace system. Meanwhile, the Chancellor’s Spring budget made no further provision for the young.

Sheffield Hallam, alongside universities throughout the UK, has worked extremely hard to support our students through the last year, providing almost £4 million in financial hardship funds, IT equipment and essential food supplies to isolating students.

Our support services have been available throughout the pandemic and we’ve collaborated with leading mental health charity Mind to run online mental health workshops.

We developed comprehensive packages of support for the Class of 2020 and Class 2021, to mitigate the challenges our students face as they graduate into a devastated labour market.

Our students have shown resilience, patience and adaptability throughout the last year. They have readily engaged with new ways of learning, contributed to the university’s response to the pandemic – raising money for the NHS and other charities, collecting food for local foodbanks – and 600 of our final-year nursing and allied health students even joined the NHS workforce to support front line staff during the first wave of infections.

But they are understandably frustrated and angry that a government who promised to prioritise the education sector as restrictions eased has again overlooked students in higher education.

The government decision on student returns from 17 May is wrong and puts yet another hurdle in the way of generational equity and effective recovery from the challenges of the pandemic.

The Government must give much greater consideration to the impact of the last year on young people. We all need to put the needs of the young centre-stage: the generation who have endured restrictions which have taken a year of their childhood and youth and had a significant impact on their mental health.

We can’t give students back the last year. But, as we face up to the long-term consequences of the pandemic, given the enormous role this generation has to play in the UK’s recovery and future prosperity, it is imperative that as a society we make all our decisions with the interests of the young in mind.