We spoke to students wanting to return home for the second lockdown

Concerns over mental health, Covid rates and flights home have led to a number of students wanting to leave Cambridge

CN: Mentions of mental health, depression, and eating disorders

The University of Cambridge’s residency requirements, which obligate students to stay in Cambridge during term-time under the “Terms of Study”, have come under fire this week.

In line with government guidance, and to limit movement across the country, universities across England are discouraging students from returning home under the new coronavirus measures. However, the University of Cambridge this week clarified that, in conjunction with term-time residency rules, students who choose to return home without permission may not be able to continue with their studies or even graduate, leaving those students who want to return home during this difficult time feeling “trapped”.

Student responses to this announcement have been diverse. Many students welcome the university’s announcement that students can remain on-site, telling us they feel safer in Cambridge, are better able to keep loved ones at home safe, and are able to have a better academic and social life at university. However, some students would rather spend the second lockdown at home.

We spoke to students wanting to return home, to hear their reasons why, and to find out how they believe the university should respond: 

Following government guidance the university has told students they must remain in Cambridge

‘I feel isolated, depressed and lonely’

Many of the students we spoke to feel these guidelines are unfair and should not be in place. From the responses we received, the overwhelming majority of students who wanted to leave were thinking of their mental health. Niamh* said: “Staying for weeks in a small room in a town I don’t know and with people I don’t know, just to attend everything online, has caused me health issues like stress, mood disorders, lack of socialising, depression and eating disorders.” 

Whilst these sentiments are echoed by students across the university, the new restrictions appear to be a particular concern for freshers, a group more likely to be locked down in households of relative strangers. Amy* said: “I would rather be locked down with my family than my random housemates who I’m not really good friends with.” Being forced into household groups has left many in the lurch, without a sense of community around them. This makes it much harder for those who need support as those they live with can’t provide the help they need, potentially cut off from other support networks. 

‘I was in isolation for three weeks, and not once was I checked on’

Among students who wanted to return home during the lockdown, a key concern was that colleges aren’t doing enough to protect the welfare of students. Isolating students have felt the brunt of this, with Alex* telling us that as an international student they were forced to quarantine upon arrival. They told us: “[I] was not allowed access to my personal belongings during quarantine. I had to pay extra for rent and food despite living in harsh conditions – in a room where the windows would not even open.”

One student told us that the environment at their college has become “toxic” due to the strict Covid restrictions, causing them to feel “isolated, lonely and depressed”. Millie* agreed that colleges haven’t been taking adequate steps to look after isolating students, she wrote: “I was in isolation for three weeks, and not once was I checked on.” This has taken a toll on her mental health, telling us “there have been times when I really felt like I wasn’t going to make it.” 

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An abandoned Senate’s passage Photo credits: Genevieve Holl-Allen

‘I do not feel safe from coronavirus when living at the College’

Others wanted to return home simply out of fear of Covid itself. James*  is strongly considering going home, telling us: “I do not feel safe from coronavirus when living at the college.” He points to the close proximity of students in halls, and tells us that he is concerned that some of his neighbours haven’t been sticking to college or government guidelines.

Similarly, a number of students told us they felt unsafe in the college environment due to what they consider to be insufficiently strong restrictions: Charley* told us that she doesn’t think her college has taken enough action to make college a safe environment. She points to a recent fire drill at her college where there was overcrowding on corridors as well as students neither wearing masks nor socially distancing from other households, which has led her to believe her college is an “unsafe environment”. She told us: “I do not feel safe with staying in halls any longer”

‘My college does not support my decision’

Yet, despite the multitude of mental and physical health concerns amongst those students who want to leave Cambridge, the response received for those who have tried to leave has been tough and often confusing. Jason*, an international student said: “My college doesn’t support my decision but makes matters more difficult by requiring medical evidence to allow me to study remotely”. This has been difficult for him to manage since he hasn’t yet registered with a GP and so has struggled to obtain the medical evidence needed to convince his college to let him leave.

The second lockdown has also led to renewed calls for reform of the university’s residency rule, which dictates that students must reside within three miles of Gt. St Mary’s Church within term time. Ferdinand* described this as being “an archaic rule that should not have any place in times of a global pandemic!”

Students are calling upon the senior leadership staff to consider whether the preservation of traditional rules is really necessary, especially considering the university was able to reverse this traditional rule in Easter Term. 

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Residency terms require students to remain within three miles of the Church Photo credits: Xanthe Robertson

‘To keep people here is criminal, please just let me go fucking home’

The overwhelming consensus from students who wanted to go home, was that they felt the university should be providing students with the option to study remotely. Isaac* told us: “The option to study remotely for the remainder of the academic year should be given to all students who wish to do so”.

Yasmin* agreed, stressing the difficult situation many international students have been placed in: “A lot of the international students definitely felt forced to come from countries where cases were extremely low [and the] situation was well managed.” This frustration was exacerbated by the difficulties many students faced returning to Cambridge, due to expensive tickets and non-operational flights due to international travel restrictions. 

Many international students feel as if they are in a similar position as in March. Priya told us that her college has told students to stay, since they “hope and believe” most students will be able to go home at the end of term. Yet, she tells us that for international students, “hope and belie[f] is simply not good enough” due to the risk of flight restrictions and the closure of international borders. Yasmin* agreed, telling us she believed “the option of remote study to anyone who needs it, should be offered.” 

‘Why did they bring us back here to pay rent and be trapped in our rooms?’

Others are wondering why students returned to university at the start of term at all, and at the start of term there had been attempts by several student groups at the university to campaign for more educational options, with the International Student’s Campaign writing an open latter calling for the option of remote study. Lena* said: “Cambridge’s response has been wrong. Other top UK universities like Imperial already allow students to study remotely and there’s a lot of us who’d rather study from home given the circumstances”.  

Moreover, many students feel they have been misled about the nature of teaching this year. Amar* expresses his confusion at the university’s policy, reminding us “Cambridge was the first university to announce its move to all on-line teaching [back in] May”, causing him to question why the university insisted we come back to Cambridge.

He points out inconsistencies between the university’s insistence that most small-group teaching is taking place in person, and the reality that for many students all of their contact hours have been moved online. This is a sentiment shared by Tolu* who told us that she “have [zero] contact hours in person this term”, despite her college telling her she would be having supervisions in person. As a result, she tells us that she is “struggling to understand why the university and colleges are insisting that all students have to stay onsite.” 

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Online contact hours have led to an almost empty sidg Photo Credits: Katie Thacker

‘We’ve been exploited for finances’

There was a strong feeling amongst students that the university’s determination to keep students in Cambridge was to support the financial situation of colleges, many of whom are struggling having lost a third of rental income last year. Jessica* describes the university’s response as a “circus of inventing reasons why we need to stay without acknowledging it’s because of rent.” This is a sentiment shared by Louis* who comments: “It feels like they are trying to trap us here. It feels like they couldn’t care less about what’s best for us, it’s all about making sure we’re here giving them our money.” 

A number of students felt that financial concerns had come at the expense of student welfare, with Luca* telling us that the prioritisation of money had led to him feeling “like a statistic or a figure, and not a person.” Indeed, the responses remind us that colleges aren’t the only group whose financial situation has been impacted by Covid, with one student telling us they “can’t afford to stay, especially when my parents are struggling financially from the impacts of Covid”, reinforcing the need for colleges to listen to their students concerns. 

‘There is zero adequate mental health support’

Whether or not the university overturns its residency requirements in coming terms, it is clear from the responses we received that for the many students who have to remain in Cambridge there is a desire for better mental health support within colleges. One student was frustrated by their college’s decision to spend money on things with much less present importance than student wellbeing: “What we actually need is college staff who care about student wellbeing and welfare”, especially given the high number of students who will find the next month an isolating and lonely experience.

Jazeel* agreed that more mental health support was urgently needed. He told us: “Apart from my tutor I have no idea who to turn to and I don’t want to complain to them about the college.” A student at Trinity College tells us that “there is zero adequate mental health support”, driving home the need for colleges to take additional measures to protect student welfare in this stressful time.

‘Believe students when they say what is best for them’

Students had a range of views on what positive steps the university could take to improve the situation moving forward, primarily by providing clear communication and flexibility. One respondee said: “Give flexibility to students in all circumstances. Believe students when they say what is best for them without demanding ‘medical evidence’.” Another student agreed that there needs to be more one-to-one communication as “there shouldn’t be a blanket ban on people going home, as some people just won’t be able to cope.”

A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge has told The Tab: “The University of Cambridge is following UK government guidance given to all universities in keeping the University and colleges open, and in asking students in residence to remain here and avoid travel while the national lockdown is in place. Longstanding University of Cambridge rules on residence remain consistent with that guidance. Students with legitimate health concerns who apply for an exemption to this government guidance will be given careful consideration.

“Our main priority is to protect the health of our staff and students. Everyone across the collegiate University has worked hard to ensure that staff and students can work, teach and learn in a COVID-secure way.”

Stephen Toope’s recent emails have repeated the university’s priority to give students ‘the best education we can under the current circumstances’ but from the responses we received, it seems there is no one size fits all approach to ‘the best education’ under lockdown. By listening to a variety of student voices, the university can learn to support all students with their pastoral and educational needs during this difficult time for both students and the university administration. 

 Trinity College have also been contacted for comment. 

Students affected by the contents of this article can find mental health support from a variety of sources, such as University Counselling, Cambridge Nightline or Student Minds Cambridge. For any student considering returning home, we recommend getting in touch with your tutor for support. 

*All names used in this article have been changed to preserve anonymity 

Feature image credit: Tara Collins