I am not normally one to praise our current government, which is why it somewhat pains me to admit when Universities Minister Michelle Donelan was making TV appearances to discuss the government’s plan to get students home for Christmas, I was impressed.
While I did not agree with everything she said, here was someone who was finally expressing what I had felt when so many people seemed to want universities to lock their doors again during the second lockdown, or even to not return in the first place.
The government undeniably must get students home for Christmas. Were they not to, the public outcry would be unprecedented. The impact of being separated from their families during the festive season on students’ mental health would be extortionate and, aside from that, would it even be feasible to lock up students when the rest of the nation will likely be free to go out as they choose? It makes sense then that the government has chosen to take control of the situation, allocating a window for students to travel home immediately following the national lockdown, when the risks of transmission across the nation from this mass movement should be greatly reduced.
This is not to say the plans are perfect. The testing which is being offered by the government appears to be limited, in that it will be targeted to areas which pose the greatest risk. This will still leave a void for students where testing is not available who may feel they are taking a greater risk in travelling home without knowing if they carry the disease. However, given the situation the government finds themselves in at this moment, they are delivering on their promise to get students home to their families for Christmas in as safe a way as possible.
On the wider issue of the government’s treatment of universities during the second lockdown, I again largely agreed with Ms. Donelan’s position. In my experience, neither online nor in-person seminars are perfect in the current situation. In the online environment, if the students are nervous or unwilling to contribute, the experience can be an uncomfortable one. Equally, in-person teaching can be challenging due to the social distancing required.
However, while much of the online content is of a very high quality, to completely lose the in-person aspect of courses would diminish the university experience, which ultimately relies on the ability to effectively exchange ideas. It would also, as the government frequently points out, increase the isolation of students who already have few reasons to leave their accommodation. Perhaps in regions with very high levels of coronavirus, going fully online could be the correct approach. However, in areas with low case numbers, this would be to the detriment of students.
Undeniably, this semester has been a hard one for many of us and it was comforting to finally hear another voice defending students who want to continue their studies as normally as possible.