Students are not back in Bristol to party, so stop demonising us

‘Bristol wouldn’t have had so many sick or dead without them,’ wrote one local resident

This month Bristol students have come under heavy criticism in the press. Local and national media outlets have slammed Bristol students based on one irresponsible group in a hall of residence, and Bristol Live wrote a whole article based on one anonymous staff member who claimed that students only “want to come back for the social side” and are back in Bristol to party.

Bristol Live even published a follow up about over 600 Covid breaches in one weekend, yet over two-thirds of the article focused on that one student party, which resulted in comments from local Bristolians such as: “withdraw their student loans”, “send them home and end the problem for the Bristol population”, and “Bristol wouldn’t have had so many sick or dead without them”.

The demonisation of students could not be more wrong. Bristol Uni’s very own training medics are working on placement in hospitals and delivering the coronavirus vaccine, while over 3,000 students have had to come back in order to continue vital training within teaching, dentistry and social work.

Some students never even left Bristol for Christmas. International students found themselves trapped in the UK because of travel restrictions, while care leavers, estranged students and students with vulnerable family members spent a quiet and isolated Christmas in Bristol in order to follow the rules.

The villainization of students is nothing new and often the criticism is deserved, but, in this case, students have bigger things to worry about than socialising. We are in the middle of the exam period and, with insufficient academic mitigations in place, the priority for students is academic success, not partying. Besides, 30-59 year olds are spreading cases through Bristol the most.

Less than 0.4 per cent of students in Bristol have received a fine for breaking rules this month, showing that the overwhelming majority of students are following the rules.

But for those who are seeing students and wondering how they had the nerve to come back, here are just some of the reasons students are in Bristol.

Some courses are exempt from lockdown restrictions

According to figures from Bristol Uni, 3,323 students are on exempt courses, which means that they study dentistry, medicine, teaching, social work, or require professional accreditation. This makes up 11 per cent of the student body, which is a substantial number. These students were ordered to return by the government and are still receiving in-person teaching. Note that the figure above is just Bristol Uni, it does not include UWE.

One cannot criticise the university for continuing to deliver training to future doctors, nurses, dentists, social workers, or teachers. The students on those courses are essential to the future in their respective fields, and everything possible should be done to ensure they continue to receive the highest quality training possible.

India Costantini is a third year medic and is back in Bristol, telling The Bristol Tab: “It’s very challenging and can be quite intense in hospitals currently but I am grateful just to be able to be on the wards and learn especially after our teaching last year was cut short so early and again just before Christmas.”

In addition to her course, India and other medical students are helping the NHS deliver the Covid vaccine: “We still have to be very flexible as things are changing by the week but right now it’s nice to still have in person teaching when so many students don’t and every so often actually be helpful when we can.”

Care leavers and estranged students never left Bristol

Although many think of Bristol students as privileged folk being shuttled back and forth from their country manor in Surrey, there are actually around 100 care leavers and estranged students in Bristol who did not leave their accommodation over the Christmas holidays. These are students with no close ties to family, and many were isolated over Christmas as their friends returned to their families.

The Care Leavers and Estranged Students (CLES) network and others hosted a range of online events from quizzes and online games to mingles and murder mystery dinners. They also delivered care packages from the university to the students which contained some sweet treats, baking goods, puzzles, stationary, Christmas lights and hand calligraphed cards.

Tom Covill, Chair of the CLES network, told The Bristol Tab: “I would like to remind people that many CLES were left stranded in Bristol over the holidays, often living alone and struggling financially. Most of them are just keen to have some semblance of a social bubble in order to feel less isolated.

“Whilst there is a minority students who are perhaps less mindful of the current COVID guidance, it must be emphasised that most Bristol students are just trying to overcome the same challenges as everyone else; surviving COVID and progressing with their degree.”

International students couldn’t get home

As the number of coronavirus cases surged in the run-up to Christmas, many international students found that they could not return home due to travel restrictions in place, or the huge cost of flights, isolation, and private testing on return. These students are paying massive amounts more in tuition fees than home students, and hoped to have the experience of university life in Bristol, however the pandemic put the kibosh on that, with many now stranded in their hall or flat.

Olivia, a second year Social Policy and Politics student, did not return home to California due to rapidly rising cases both here and in the US state, and she could not face going through the “dreadful” quarantine again as she had to when she arrived in September. Olivia has previously spoken to The Bristol Tab about the negative effect of quarantine on her mental health, and almost two-thirds of students say their mental health has worsened during the pandemic.

Some students never left or returned before the lockdown

Lockdown was announced on January 4th, by which time many students had already returned to Bristol to prepare essays or for exams. I, for example, returned to Bristol on the 27th of December in order to have access to a study centre and a quiet place to work.

The Russell Group announced quickly after the lockdown began that safety net policies would not be implemented this time around, leaving students even more stressed and worried about the quality of their work.

Maddy, a third year Film and TV student, is a carer when at home, and told The Bristol Tab that she stayed in Bristol over Christmas because of the risk of infecting her family and the lack of a quiet place to work: “My brother has special needs and my mum is a teacher. If either of them got anything from me I literally don’t know what I’d do.”

In addition to students not wanting to transmit the virus, the university only announced some mitigations days before the start of the assessment period, meaning that for the month of January, assessment performance was top of the priority list.

We’re not perfect, but we’re not the devil either

Students are clearly not perfect, and the party held by irresponsible first year students is an example of that. However, we do not all deserve to be painted with the same broad brush.

Since the start of the new year, only 15 fines have been issued by the university to students up until January 26th; considering that there are around 4,000 students back in Bristol for valid reasons, less than 0.4 per cent of students have broken coronavirus rules, showing exactly where their priorities lie.

Students certainly miss the social element of university; it makes the hours of studying worthwhile, and is a crucial part of the growing up process. However, we are also aware of our responsibilities to wider society, and, as also reported by The Bristol Post, 30-59 year olds make up 48 per cent of cases in Bristol, not students.

A first year student in a hall of residence told The Bristol Tab that halls have been “super quiet”, adding: “People came back for their exams and you could tell since the study centre has been full the entire time. Literally no one has come back with the purpose of partying, and it’s harmful to assert that as the case.”

Pouncing on one party or one staff member’s anecdotal testimonial is neither accurate nor productive when assessing whether students should be in Bristol, and the behaviour of the community as a whole. Students already feel that they have been been treated horribly by government, and the community should be supporting the students that contribute £721.2 million per year to the Bristol economy, not demonising them.

So next time you see a student, remember the many reasons they might be back. Some certainly should not have travelled back, but it is false to say that all students are here just to party; we have our futures to worry about.

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