When Ben stands up before the university students he teaches, he doesn’t want them to know he’s afraid. He comforts himself that Covid cases are still relatively low locally, and the kids are mostly doing their best; they turn up masked, and try to keep their distance.
Like many lecturers, he worries about jeopardising his job by making a fuss, so he has resolved to put on a good show for the students and “spend the nights telling yourself you’re being silly, no one else is complaining, the rates are low, the masks will act like kryptonite against Covid-19”. But still, as the virus explodes across university campuses, he can’t shake the feeling that he and his colleagues are “disposable, like cannon fodder”.
And now Ben knows the government ignored a recommendation from its own scientific advisers that might have made them safer. This week, it emerged that the emergency science group Sage recommended, on 21 September, that university and college teaching be moved online except where essential. But by then students had paid the rent for their halls of residence, and some were already in town, promises of a near-normal university experience ringing in their ears.
Ministers decided not to take Sage’s advice, just as they decided against a national “circuit breaker” lockdown recommended in the same meeting, arguing that it needed to be balanced against factors including students’ mental health. Three weeks on, Covid is rife on campus, with more than 9,000 students testing positive so far; and while most are young enough to shake it off, their middle-aged lecturers worry they might not be so lucky.
Like many academics, Ben believes the fear of scaring students off, or having to give them refunds, has trumped safety concerns in a marketised higher education system where universities compete against each other to put bums on seats.
There are genuine arguments to be had here about what’s best for students, and opinions vary wildly even among academics. Many fear for the welfare of lonely 18-year-olds far from home, struggling to engage with strangers through a laptop. Others actively enjoy the spark of teaching face to face, or trust managers to keep them safe. But talk to lecturers, and one theme recurs constantly: students were promised in-person teaching because universities feared they wouldn’t come otherwise, and now everyone is running scared of the financial consequences of failing to deliver.
If students start demanding their money back, universities could quickly be plunged into a financial crisis that the Treasury seems disinclined to bail them out of. The net result is students feeling cheated, staff betrayed and the local populations in university towns increasingly alarmed.
In the first week of October more than 80% of Covid cases in Exeter, one of the hardest hit southern cities, were reportedly among students. University outbreaks have driven up the numbers in cities from Newcastle to Nottingham.
Quarantines can help stop the virus seeping into local communities, but a surge in student positives can still push a city over the threshold for a local lockdown. Some fear tensions if local people start to blame students for the fact they’re no longer allowed out to the pub.
Of course, all this was predictable. Outbreaks on US college campuses set alarm bells ringing months ago, followed by clusters in Scottish universities (which go back earlier than English ones). Yet still the public argument was mostly over the rights and wrongs of reopening schools, even though all the evidence suggests children don’t catch or transmit Covid nearly as easily as 18-year-olds do.
It was obvious from the start that moving millions of students around the country, jumbling young adults from remote rural areas up with those from Covid hotspots, held risks that sending five-year-olds to their local primary does not. But when Cambridge University announced back in May that it was suspending face-to-face lectures for a year as a precaution, it provoked a backlash. Hadn’t young people suffered enough already?
Spooked by the hostility, other universities duly fell over themselves to promise as much face time as possible. And while some followed advice from the University and College Union to go digital by default, in others the pressure on staff to teach in person has been intense. Everyone knows that if student numbers fall, cost-cutting and redundancies usually follow.
Stephen, who lectures at a university in a city with one of the highest Covid rates in the country, says he has never felt more stressed over his two decades in higher education; he feels “bullied into teaching in person, and in the dark about the scale of infection among the student population”.
Junior staff and those on insecure contracts can feel even more powerless to refuse. Jane, a PhD student in the Midlands, is asthmatic, and officially it’s her choice whether or not to teach undergraduate seminars in person. But she thinks refusing would jeopardise her chances of landing a permanent post, so she has nervously agreed to do it: “I have no ability to push back, because I’m as junior as it’s possible to be.”
And now the publication of the Sage minutes leaves vice-chancellors – many of whom found out about its recommendations only on the day they were published – caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s difficult for universities whose own professors attend the committee to ignore its advice. But in the absence of financial guarantees from government, alienating their student customers is a dangerous game.
For in Facebook groups and WhatsApp circles, parents furious that their children are racking up debt in order to be banged up in Covid-riddled halls of residence are beginning to organise. One group of parents, using the hashtag #Fees4What, has started an online petition urging parity with Scotland, where students have the right to end university tenancy agreements early owing to Covid; others are plotting legal challenges.
The growing fear, meanwhile, is that disillusioned students may simply drop out – a decision with consequences for the rest of their lives. Some struggling freshers have already fled, while others have quietly started commuting from home. Academics still teaching in person talk of lecture theatres emptying out, with students either self-isolating or too frightened to show up.
Boris Johnson has vowed to get students safely home for Christmas, but some in academia are beginning to worry more about getting them back in January. What if some decide they’d rather not risk getting trapped in locked-down cities once again? Before long, the government may be forced once again to choose between pumping more cash into universities or trying to craft a solution on the cheap. Let’s hope this time it doesn’t fail the test.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist