Campus attendance should be optional for students

It makes no sense to oblige students to risk their own and others’ health by travelling long distances and converging on campus, says Brian Wong

September 26, 2020
Wearing mask in airport
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The Covid-19 outbreak at the University of Glasgow is likely to be the first of many on UK campuses as infection rates continue to spiral. Indeed, how long in-person classes survive the rising numbers of coronavirus cases in many Western countries is open to question.

Nevertheless, while some universities have adopted a flexible approach to residency requirements, waiving the need for students to attend in-person tutorials and seminars, others have adopted a hybrid approach, whereby students are required to be in physical residence even though large lectures and gatherings are not permitted.

As someone who is particularly worried about catching Covid-19, on account of my asthma, I am grateful that my institution, the University of Oxford, has been very supportive of my application for exemption from residency. Yet I believe such exemptions are a right, not a privilege, and should be offered to every student, international or domestic, who is unable to return, or who would struggle with returning to “normal” classes.

First, mandatory residency requirements pose substantial risks to students’ health. Yes, they could adhere strictly to their household bubbles, wash their hands regularly and don masks (even while many people around them do not). Yet none of these measures could sufficiently mitigate against the risks of catching (and spreading) the disease. Even the safety of seminars and in-person tutorials can’t be assured in the UK given the shortage of tests. And there are few locations more conducive towards the spread of infections than jam-packed freshers’ week events – never mind unlawfully large gatherings in private accommodation, where, students being students, social distancing recommendations and regulations are flagrantly defied.

Second, the anxiety induced by the general precarity of the entire situation is only likely to amplify the already stressful nature of university education, exposing many more students to mental health problems. Those most prone should be allowed to study where they feel safest – which may well be at their family home.

Third, it is high time that universities took seriously the dangers posed to their faculty, researchers, and support staff – particularly the most vulnerable among them. University staff do not sign on for additional health risks, especially those with dependants or family. Obliging them to teach on campus is equally foolhardy. I understand the extra workload involved in teaching both in person and online, but digital teaching seems to be mandated even on campuses where students are required to be in residence. So why not let the academics do it from home – and offer them all the help they need to do so?

Finally, requiring international students, in particular, to travel to campus could cause them to incur large costs if they are forced to fly home again in the event of a second lockdown – never mind the risk of catching the virus on their way to and from the campus. International freshers already have to adjust to an unfamiliar social and academic setting – their woes would only be amplified by additional worries about their own physical well-being and mental health.

Some may argue that there are serious pedagogical and experiential drawbacks to not having an on-campus education, and that waiting for the virus to disappear or be conquered by medical science before reopening campuses is foolish and unrealistic. Yet right across the Atlantic, many recently reopened US campuses have closed down as a result of new Covid outbreaks and decreed that they will not physically reopen for the year.

Fully digital lessons are by no means able to fully substitute for the in-person teaching and learning experience, but they could well be the best option in the circumstances, not only for students and staff but the local communities fearing the effects on local infection rates of an influx of socially active young adults from far and wide.

Students who would struggle to learn from home should, of course, be given the option to return to campus. Indeed, it may be even less safe for international students to remain in countries with even higher incidence rates than the UK – where social distancing measures may be even more corrosive of their mental health.

Universities should by all means offer a sanctuary on their campuses for those who need one in these troubling times. But they should not demand risk-taking from their staff and students for no good reason.

Brian Wong is a DPhil candidate in politics at Balliol College, Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar (Hong Kong ’20), and the founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.

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