Opinion: With another lockdown, Cambridge must be more flexible about remote study

Any student with a self-identified need should have the option to study remotely

It was the evening of 23 March when Boris Johnson announced an unprecedented, months-long national lockdown. By this point, Cambridge colleges had already urged their students to vacate their rooms and return to their homes. Asking students to travel home with little consideration of individual circumstances got its fair share of criticism. Many students were put in a financially difficult, mentally precarious position, as they were forced out of their college accommodation at such short notice.

More than seven months later, Britain has once again entered a lockdown. Cambridge’s response, however, has changed. In an email sent to all students, the Vice-Chancellor announced that they are “required to remain in residence for the remainder of the term,” and that “[students] will only be given permission to pursue [their] studies remotely on health grounds.”

This general position is held not singularly by Cambridge, but by all UK universities, as it is based on a Department for Education guidance that discourages students from moving back home. Nonetheless, Cambridge is showing a markedly low degree of flexibility in applying this guidance to its students. Students were told that they will not be able to progress or graduate should they leave Cambridge without permission. They were also told that they must prove their medical (including mental health) issue in order to be considered for remote study.

This stance seems to be the opposite of its predecessor in March. However, a characteristic is shared: like the one in March, the latest policy limits greatly the students’ ability to determine the safest, most effective, and least stressful mode of study for themselves, whether that be to stay at university or to return home. In these difficult times, it fails to recognise that even for students without a documentable medical issue, the desire for remote study can stem from a real need rather than from a preference.

Safety concerns

The foremost of those needs, of course, is the need for safety. Despite encouraging asymptomatic testing statistics, there is reasonable grounds for any student to feel unsafe from the virus in Cambridge, after a month that saw an abundance of household infections, routine breaking of social distancing guidelines, and a major residence hall outbreak. If students with such coronavirus concerns feel that they would be able to work more safely from their homes, it is inappropriate for the university to prevent them from returning there. It is so much more inappropriate to tell them that proactive action to ensure personal safety will harm their ability to progress or graduate.

Such concerns over individual safety are pertinent also to international students, many of whose countries are controlling the virus much better than Britain currently is. These students will feel and be much safer in their home countries than amid (or even in) isolating households in Cambridge. Additionally, should they get infected in Cambridge and require treatment, they must deal with a foreign medical system and its unfamiliar processes with presumably little family support available from overseas. Considering all this, it is difficult to find a reason why their attempts to travel back should be actively blocked by the university, especially when it repeatedly commits itself to prioritising the health of its members over any other value.

Mental health and personal needs, documentable or not

The psychological toll coming from the lockdown, especially during a demanding Cambridge term, calls for the optimal mental and emotional support to be provided to students. The university maintains that support from the university’s and colleges’ counselling services is available. Nevertheless, these services typically involve long waiting times and are offered mostly, if not entirely, online this term — which may not be intrinsically worse but can definitely involve technical issues of various capacities. As much as such services may be effective to an extent, for many students they will not be nearly as helpful as the nearby, in-person presence of their family, or being in the familiar home environment.

It could of course be argued that, provided the university’s position that a documented mental health issue is a valid reason for remote study, anyone who needs it will get it. However, especially in these testing times, support should be offered as liberally as possible. While the university is absolutely right to allow remote study to those with documentable mental health issues, they are not the only ones who would benefit from moving back home. The university should respect the personal needs of all students who believe they have a welfare-related need to study at home. With or without medical issues that can be put on paper, remote study should be guaranteed to them as an option.

So why is Cambridge insisting on keeping people in residence?

The justification the university presents for its inflexibility with remote study is threefold: the value of in-person education, the need to prevent virus transmission while students are traveling, and the residency requirement, a university rule from the olden days dictating that students must spend a fixed number of days resident in Cambridge.

When asked for comment, a university spokesperson remarked: “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.

“Cambridge is a collegiate, in-person experience and we are committed to providing that for students in a COVID-secure way. Students with legitimate health concerns who apply for an exemption to this government guidance will be given careful consideration.”

While not many students will dispute that Cambridge education is at its best when it is done in-person, the number of students currently experiencing a meaningful amount of in-person learning may be even smaller. Where many students have one or even zero hours of in-person sessions weekly, it is worth examining the opportunity cost of prioritising these over maximising student welfare and safety — given also that improved mental conditions and reduced stress may plausibly enhance the students’ educational experience.

In regards to coronavirus concerns, the university could devise ways (such as making students sign an agreement before departure) in which they could educate students and ensure that they travel in a Covid-secure manner. In regards to the residency requirement, one would hope that amid a worldwide crisis during which online learning is no longer a mere option but a new normal, centuries-old university ordinances would adapt too.

And so arises the need for the option of remote study

What all this ends up showing is the need for the university to offer the option of remote study to any student who self-identifies to have a need to do so — without requiring them to formally demonstrate that need. To propose this is not the same as to demand the university to go directly against government advice, as the latest guidance on higher education settings explicitly states that students may leave home “to escape injury or harm (including mental health crises).”

Cambridge must recognise that the current pandemic sparks diverse needs amongst students, not all of which are documentable or verifiable. It must trust these students and their needs, and support them fully, rather than hindering them by citing an out-of-touch clause from page 172 of its rulebook.