Government urged to ensure students can return home for Christmas

Ministers have come under pressure this week to guarantee university students will not be forced to stay on campuses over the winter break.

Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, told Sky News: “I very much want students to be able to go home at Christmas, and if we all pull together and observe these new rules […] then we will be able to get to a point where that should be possible.” 

Dowden’s comments come as thousands of students in the UK are self-isolating, following a rise of cases in universities. The University of Leeds has revealed so far six of its students have received positive test results. However, the real figure is expected to be higher as not all cases are likely to have been reported to the university.

Labour has urged the government to promise students can return home. The shadow education secretary Kate Green wrote to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson calling on him to “ensure that every student has access to testing to allow a safe journey home”.

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, hopes the government won’t have to tell students to stay on campus over Christmas. Even so, he said he couldn’t rule it out. “The important thing is in the short-term, students, once they’ve gone to university, should stay at university so as not to spread the disease.”

In Scotland, specific guidance for students has been released stating “if you are able to you should remain in your student accommodation and not visit family at home. As you have formed a new household within your student accommodation, this means that you cannot stay overnight at another household.” Though it acknowledges, “there will be circumstances where it may not be possible for you to remain in student accommodation.”

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that the rules will be reviewed every three weeks. She stated that it will be an “absolute priority” for her government to get a position where the rules can be relaxed over the winter break. So far, specific guidance for students has not been published in the rest of the UK. Though it is expected that the advice will be similar.

The prospect of having to stay on campus over the winter break may come as less of a blow to international students, who are often unable to go back home over the holidays even in normal circumstances.

The University of Leeds offers support for those staying on campus called ‘Christmas in Leeds‘. It gives students and postgraduate researchers in Leeds, “the chance to meet others, experience Christmas traditions and find out about help and support.”

A message on the website says: “Please note, because of the ongoing situation surrounding Coronavirus (COVID-19), the activities we offer may be different to usual.”

Some students are already preparing for the possibility of having to celebrate Christmas on campus.

Olivia Davies, an International Relations and Arabic student, said the policy would have a “terrible impact” on the mental health of students. She says that with the stresses of exams and seasonal depression, going home for the holidays “is a period of relief for many students”.

Kyle Blythe, 18, a French and German student, says he understands why it might be necessary for the government to tell students to stay on campus but says his “family are completely against me staying”. “If it comes down to it then we would all have to accept it and try and make this year as magical as it normally is”. 

Kate Schneider, 21, an Asia Pacific Studies and Japanese student, says she “wouldn’t be opposed to the idea as my family isn’t always together and we don’t do a large celebration. I’m sure [Christmas] would be bigger with my flatmates.” “We get along well so we would probably cook a big meal together, get a tree and watch Christmas movies.”

Photo credit: University of Leeds