On Sunday, Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the government’s SPI-M modelling group, appeared on the news to talk about the startling rise in COVID-19 cases in the UK’s university towns. “The situation was entirely predictable,” he said, with remarkable coolness. “Even inevitable.”
Professor Woolhouse’s comments were followed on Tuesday with 7,143 new reported cases, the highest this country has ever recorded in a day. Analysis by the New Statesman has since declared that those living in student areas are 3x more likely to test positive for the virus.
As of today, 40 UK universities have announced COVID outbreaks and have subsequently put measures in place to control the spread. These restrictions commonly include the breaking up of social groups into ‘bubbles’, limits on numbers in academic spaces such as libraries and the shift of £9,250 fee courses to either wholly or partially online. At Manchester Metropolitan University, 1700 students are reportedly being prevented from leaving their accommodation by security guards. One student accommodation block in Leeds had its fire escape chained up to prevent students from exiting.
The argument that this quasi-dystopian situation was ‘inevitable’ is an odd one. Many institutions flagged worries to the government months ago about the obvious issues with thousands of young people congregating together from all over the country during the height of a pandemic. Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green called on the government last week to consider “pausing” the return and Manchester Metropolitan University claim to have raised concerns with the government that the mass return of students would see halls become COVID “incubators.” Many students who returned to university in early September only to have their courses moved entirely online are rightly questioning the point of them even being there.
This question becomes rather less perplexing when one considers this government’s priorities. Of the 1 million active full-time students in the UK, 600,000 live in PBSA (Purpose Built Student Accommodation) a sector worth an annual £50 billion. Decisions concerning the return to university were made with the priority of guaranteeing revenue to this country’s rentier class. The safety and security of students was an afterthought. As a result, across the country millions of young people are being held in a form of involuntary detention so that universities’ shaky business models can survive.
Epidemiologists have stated that 18-24-year olds are simultaneously more likely than other age groups to contract the virus and among the most likely to be asymptomatic. Yet, the official government advice states that only those showing symptoms of coronavirus ought to seek a test. In July, the government announced that young people should take special heed of social distancing regulations “in order to protect vulnerable friends and family.” Now, many 18-24 year olds are trapped in university halls with spiralling infection rates, faced with the prospect of returning home at Christmas to at-risk family members, including elderly loved ones who already face increased risk of death during the winter period. So far, with the exception of Cambridge University, no higher education institutions seem to be offering free tests to students on a regular basis.
Over the past decade, students have increasingly come to expect exploitation, not education, from universities and their partners in the rentier economy. On average, a UK-based student will finish their studies with £36,000 worth of debt. A degree, once a passport into a professional career, will likely provide no immunity from the long-term economic decline and rise in youth unemployment certain to hit the UK over the next decade, partially as a result of the government’s resounding failure to deal with the COVID crisis.
Since the first wave, the UK government has shifted the blame for the rise in cases onto vulnerable groups rather than accepting accountability for their constant missteps, crises and U-turns. Sympathetic media outlets which in August trumpeted the irreplaceable virtues of “the campus experience” are now engaged in creating moral-panic headlines about flat parties and raves.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has recently issued an ominous warning to students about the possibility of a Christmas spent in halls, as well as eagerly jumping on the bandwagon to condemn the relatively few instances of student parties. Already, the Tory media machine appears to be gearing up to blame the forthcoming second wave on the young people they encouraged a mere few weeks ago to gather. Given the government’s track record, this much may be inevitable.