Opinion: Cambridge’s lockdown response is locking disadvantaged students out of education

We shouldn’t have to choose between saving our education or saving rent money

CN: Discussion of mental health concerns, domestic violence and the inappropriate treatment of students in relation to returning to university 

Lockdown has been an incredibly hard time for university students across the country, with many students having to make tough decisions and sacrifices. Yet, despite claims that the pandemic has been a “social leveller”, it’s been nothing of the sort.                                      

Once again, working-class students and other students that are vulnerable at their current residence have been at the brunt of the poor decisions that both universities and the government are making for their education. 

With Lent term being online and the majority of students being asked to stay at home unless they need to return for health-based reasons or lack of appropriate study space at home, many students from low socio-economic backgrounds have been placed in difficult situations.  

Whilst the government guidance allows for students “without access to appropriate study spaces or facilities” to return to university, many colleges have taken a stricter interpretation of these rules, with one college allegedly implying that unless a student was homeless or at risk of serious harm at home, they would be unable to return. Other colleges have asked students to provide detailed explanations and evidence of their need to return or have subjected requests to return to detailed scrutiny. 

Having to explain your poor housing situation to your tutor in vivid detail, or the fact that you can’t get to bed because the house is full of noise, or even the idea that your home just isn’t safe is uncomfortable, puts students in a vulnerable position. To then have these concerns dismissed by your college is both frustrating and alienating. 

Such responses belittle the challenging circumstances many students from disadvantaged backgrounds have found themselves in whilst at home. From living in small overcrowded houses with many family members and a lack of private study space to a lack of consistent and strong internet connection making online learning problematic, especially considering the closure of local libraries,  it’s easy to become worried that the quality of our work will suffer.

(Credit: Camfess via Facebook)

In other cases, students are having to manage their degrees alongside living in precarious environments such as emotionally or physically abusive households,  with data of previous lockdowns showing a concerning spike in domestic violence rates. In essence, it can be nearly impossible for college tutors who barely know us to judge whether living at home is a safe and comfortable environment. Colleges must carefully assess all requests so as to allow all of these students the appropriate care and support. 

Yet, the lack of support students have been receiving from tutors is hugely concerning, especially given both the pastoral nature of the role and the sensitivity of issues that are being talked about. 

A first year student told The Tab that they felt uncomfortable when explaining their home circumstances to their college: “They repeatedly asked me about my mental health and home situations, and it felt too probing rather than coming from a place of concern.” Of course, colleges may need to ask why students need to turn, but the invasive methods of college tutors when assessing the home situations of students that are needing to return can be insensitive and demeaning. 

For another student, they felt that there was a lack of understanding amongst tutors as to what it was actually like to be from a disadvantaged background, telling The Tab: “The staff don’t come across as being able to relate to the struggles that I am having to deal with at home.

“At school, I could go and explain to my head of year that I live in a council house and there’s nowhere to study.[..] and so I have to go to the library every day because they grew up in the same place as me and they would understand.” It feels like college staff often lack an understanding of the realities of many students’ home lives.

(Credit: Camfess via Faceook)

Trying to deal with a Cambridge workload in a pandemic isn’t easy for anyone, and this especially the case for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, who have been left behind by the university and its colleges. In order to offer the appropriate support to students, colleges need to take the time to understand both the economic and emotional impact that this lockdown will have on students from disadvantaged backgrounds and work with them, not against them, to solve these. 

This is the stance of the SU’s Class Act campaign, which is campaigning for a more student-centred approach to the return policy. Amy Bottomly, Class Act President, told The Tab: “There was a frequent assumption that all students have a safe and appropriate family ‘home’ to retreat to, where they can continue to study as normal. For many students, that simply is not and is not the case. 

“Cambridge SU Class Act Campaign believes that any student who self-declares as needing to reside in Cambridge due to lack of safe or suitable alternative; for safety, mental health, or medical reasons; or for any other reason self-certified as appropriate should be accommodated by their college.”

They point out that these situations can further be compounded  for students who are disabled or identify as LGBT+: “LGBT+ students who might not have a welcoming or safe environment outside of Cambridge, or disabled students whose families may not be fully understanding of their needs are amongst many who are facing unfair additional challenges.” 

The campaign has critiqued the provisions put in place by the university and its colleges, saying: “In the application of guidance, it would appear that all too often colleges continue to forget that the university student body is diverse, with many of us having complex individual needs that cannot and should not be dismissed with blanket assumptions.” 

And then we come to another one of the many problems with this return policy: saving. I sit here in my college chair £1,500 poorer than I would have been if I had chosen to stay at home and if the university truly wanted to help any student like me or any other student that is in a vulnerable position (although, I have reason to doubt this), this is a massive oversight.

Whilst the university’s decision not to charge rent to students who are not returning to Cambridge this term is, of course, a welcomed move, it has left many students from low socio-economic backgrounds in the catch-22 of trying to decide whether it’s more important for them to have a desk to work on, even if that means returning to an empty room in an empty hallway (potentially to the detriment of their mental health) or to save a term’s worth of rent.  

When choosing between staying in overcrowded and poor facilitated households which may cause their education to suffer and having to front the cost of a lonely term at the university, a number of students have felt pushed to choose the former. A first year student told The Tab that the prospect of saving a term’s rent was “100 per cent” a consideration for them when deciding whether to return: “The main reason why I didn’t want to go back because I would spend so much money there, especially on rent.” 

Whilst this is perhaps unavoidable, this has ultimately created a situation where wealthier students, who are perhaps likely to have the resources and the facilities to study effectively from home, have been granted a chance to save money while students from more disadvantaged backgrounds have been left to face an impossible dilemma. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds shouldn’t be put in a situation where they feel they have to remain in an inadequate study environment because they feel they cannot afford to return. 

Credit: @zarahnshit on Twitter)

For students that have returned to almost-empty colleges, there is a very real threat of isolation and loneliness. Spending your entire day alone in your room, with almost no-human contact is incredibly challenging and draining. I can’t even definitively say that this is a better working environment for me, due to the toll it has taken on my mental health. Again, highlighting how students already from disadvantaged backgrounds have again been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

It’s undeniable that this is a difficult time for all of us, yet I can’t help but feel that everything is always harder for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, even after all the material factors we’ve had to overcome to be where we are right now. 

It feels as though we’re asking for too much when we ask the university or our colleges to care about us. I think that’s what strikes me as being the worst part in this whole situation.

The university press office was contacted for comment. 

Feature image credit: Matilda Head