Clara James*, a criminology student, left her student house in Bath at Halloween and hopes to stay away until well into the New Year. “I’d like to stay at home longer,” she says. “I’m just kind of fed up with the stress.” James says she doesn’t want to get stuck in her student room if there’s a strict lockdown.
“If everything’s improving I would love to go back to uni,” she adds. “I’m still paying rent, so it depends how things are in January.”
Many students in England went home for Christmas this week, unsure of when they will return to campus. The government wants them to stagger their journeys back over a five-week period beginning on 4 January 2021, with everyone expected to be back at university by 7 February.
Those on practical courses requiring face-to-face teaching, including medicine, nursing and dentistry, sciences which need to use laboratories, architecture, geography, art, and performing arts like music, dance and drama, should be prioritised for an early return, the government says. Any courses that have exams in January that cannot be moved could also be prioritised. All other courses, such as humanities subjects, would be asked to return later.
While some, like James, hope to take advantage of the plans and stay away as long as possible, others are afraid they won’t be able to make it back quickly enough.
“I worry there’s going to be another lockdown and I’ll be stuck at [my family] home,” says Isabella Cooke, who’s studying history and Spanish at the University of Bristol. “It’s more distracting at home and I can get to the library on campus.”
Natasha Cooper*, studying a humanities subject at the University of Durham, is also concerned about next year. “I’m worried I’m not going to be able to come back,” she says. “It’s difficult and inconvenient to not be near the library when I have essays due in early February. It stresses me out that I could be forced to stay away and have a deadline, and not be able to get the books.”
What do universities say?
Many say they will put out information for students about the start of the spring term as the situation evolves. “Like other universities, we will be continuing to provide a blend of face-to-face and online learning after Christmas,” a spokesperson at the University of Birmingham says, for example. “In line with the government guidance, we are phasing when on-campus activities will start.”
Will I have to pay rent?
At the moment, students must still pay for accommodation even if they are away from it, unless agreed otherwise. But some universities have offered rebates. The University of Sheffield has said it will refund undergraduates living in its residences a total of £1m covering the final fortnight of term, while the University of Manchester has cut 30% of halls rent for the autumn term, following pressure from students.
The National Union of Students (NUS) is urging the government to offer financial support to those prevented from returning in the New Year.
“If students are advised not to be in their accommodation from December to February, then the government must put up more money to support student renters who will be paying hundreds or thousands of pounds for properties they are being told not to live in for months,” Larissa Kennedy, president for the NUS, says.
“Students are already struggling to make ends meet without having to line the pockets of landlords for properties they should not use on public health grounds.”
Students from universities across the UK are planning the largest rent strike in 40 years in the coming months. Purely from a legal point of view, students are obliged to pay if they have signed a contract, Daniel Fitzpatrick, a housing partner at the law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, says.
However, those forced to stay away could try arguing that the contract has been frustrated by the Covid-19 outbreak. There is also currently a “massive backlog” of possession claims. “That’s one thing student strikers are probably relying on: that it would be an enormous hassle for landlords to get these claims processed,” Fitzpatrick says. However, ultimately, he warns withholding rent can lead to a money judgment against you.
Where can I get support?
Student Space, run by mental health charity Student Minds, offers phone, text and email support for students struggling to decide when they should return to university.
Alice Wilson, head of wellbeing and mental health at Birmingham City University, says most university wellbeing services will also be operating over the holidays. “We’re producing a Christmas leaflet for students, which gives them information about when different services are available,” she says.
If students feel overwhelmed, support services can help. “Even if the adviser doesn’t have all the answers, they’ll be able to show you how to get the support you need.” Most services will also be able to operate remotely. “We work mainly by video, telephone and online chat,” says Wilson. “So you can access the same support from home.”
Wilson advises students to get a good rest over the university break and to reflect on what went better than expected in the first semester, as well as what they could do to improve the next one. “If you’re thinking [of staying away longer], I would suggest you meet with the wellbeing team and talk through the options,” she says.
“It could be tempting after a few weeks at home to stay [with family] and study online, but think about what you miss out on as well. Equally, if you’ve really struggled this term and it’s been getting in the way of your course, [staying away for longer] could be the better option for you.”
* Name has been changed