The University of Oxford has been clear in their latest communication to students: they hope to resume in-person teaching for small groups and tutorials in Michaelmas term. For many this is welcome news, and certainly there are few amongst us who don’t yearn for life to return to normal, to be able to go for a coffee or a pint in the city centre, or return to cosy research seminars, laboratories, and libraries. But for many returning students and offer-holders, the decision over whether to accept their place, or return to Oxford, is difficult and stressful to make with little or no information. It is in the University’s and individual colleges’ best interest to provide us with clear guidance on how they are preparing, and what their red lines will be.
It is great to see Oxford’s acknowledgement that vulnerable, and some international students, will be unable to attend in person this autumn, and the promise that they can attend online. However, it would be helpful to see how that would work, such as for final year and graduate seminars. We also have to be very aware that many of the tutors fall into the vulnerable category and have their own concerns about the return to in-person teaching.
Not enough information has been provided to make students, particularly non-UK, feel comfortable in their decision to attend/return. International students have several levels of logistical challenges to attending, including uncertainty around what happens in the case of another lockdown, concerns about the financial costs of additional travel or accommodation if this occurs, questions of whether they can book a flight, if they will have to quarantine upon arriving, and uncertainty around if they can even get a visa.
Many are calling for all classes to be offered online. We all know that much of what Oxford offers is not available over Teams, and that as wonderful as it is that the Bodleian has risen to the occasion, there are still far more works not available digitally than are. Online is far from ideal, but we need to be realistic about the likelihood that at least part of the year will require online learning. For international students, who make up 40% of the student body, the discussion of value, risk, and alternatives is ongoing. Within a month, international students will have to decide whether to commit to coming to Oxford. The University needs to let them know now what will be in place to help them no matter what happens.
This is not just about international students though – the quarantine issue will be relevant to all of us. When tracking and tracing is at full capacity, it is inevitable that multiple students in college accommodation will need to self-isolate. And since anyone that came into close contact with an infected student will probably need to isolate for two weeks, that conceivably means their seminars will have to go online for that period as well. Since nobody can know what the UK, or the world, will look like in 3 months, obviously no promises can be made. But clarity around what it would look like in the worst-case scenario, and how a likely second wave will be handled, could allow students to at least make a more informed decision. Oxford is understandably trying to retain as many students as possible. But by not providing information on the plans and procedures that will be implemented, the University is creating distrust, worry, and frustration.
It will also be important for colleges, in particular, to set expectations ahead of time, including the fact that most gatherings will not be allowed, and that likely includes common rooms, college bars, and hall, which the University is now insinuating will be open. If that is not possible (very likely), what alternatives will be put in place for feeding students, especially those that live in college? And what will they do, alongside the JCR/MCRs, to foster the collegial relationships that are such a valued part of the Oxford experience, and which provide invaluable welfare support?
There are several crucial questions which I believe Oxford and its member colleges need to address to help all students feel safe and confident in their ability to return. Rather than the current communication, which is based on a hoped-for best-case scenario, we need to understand their red lines. These include (and this is far from exhaustive):
- What will the situation in the UK have to look like for colleges to reopen for accommodation, and for colleges and faculties to return to small class teaching? Conversely, what will be the criteria for closing again?
- What plans will be in place for international students, those who become sick, or those who have been contacted as part of the track-and-trace scheme, to allow them to quarantine, especially if they are in college accommodation?
- Will they be able to offer accommodation and catering to students that are unable to leave Oxford because of travel restrictions or familial circumstances?
- How do they intend to encourage and enforce social distancing and isolation in colleges and university buildings? And how large a role are they prepared to play in discouraging or punishing risky or unauthorised behavior outside official buildings?
I am writing this as a postgrad member of the University, an offer-holder, and an international student. But I am also a year-round resident in Oxford, and have heard from neighbours and others in the community that they are worried about the return of students, with the increase of risky contact as Oxford’s narrow streets become crowded again. Without making this a town vs gown, or an old vs young issue, we need to recognize that the student population has a significant presence in the community, and that whilst people in their 20s appear to have a lower risk of contracting a life-threatening case of COVID-19, those they interact with are often more vulnerable. For this reason as well as the safety and health of its own student body, I would encourage Oxford to implement a COVID-19 code of conduct for students, requiring adherence to government and public health guidelines, with consequences for those who refuse to follow it.
In many ways we were lucky that the government-imposed lockdown came when it did this spring at the end of Hilary, a time when it was easy to pause classes, move students out of accommodation, and close facilities relatively quickly. Presumably, Oxford is actively preparing in case that is required again. We are less than three months away from pre-session courses, and many international students may need to arrive before that for quarantine. At this point, colleges are still trying to work out how current students can return to collect their personal belongings safely, with pre-booked slots, social distancing, and hygiene guidelines in place. Imagining that the situation will have changed enough that thousands of students can move into close quarters in late September feels like wishful thinking.
Oxford, with its world-leading epidemiologists, scientists, and medical experts, is in a better position than many to anticipate and prepare for likely scenarios. We should be taking the government’s guidance as a baseline, and then creating our own policy around what most scientists are suggesting is a probable second wave. Rather than doing the minimum, the governors should use an abundance of caution in re-opening school and college facilities, in order to protect their students, but also to protect their future earnings and reputation from the potential devastation of being behind the curve. We should, in other words, be leaders.
COVID-19 will still be a considerable concern when thousands of students are currently expected to return in October. It will have an inevitable and serious impact on the next school year, but with proper planning, flexibility, and good communication, we should be able to weather this, not unlike the other plagues and crises Oxford has seen in its 900 year history. The best thing the University can do to ensure their students feel confident enough to return this autumn is be transparent about the plans in place as soon as possible.