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Oxford JCRs launch campaign for the return of students

Charlie Hancock reports on the 'Our Turn to Return' campaign to allow students to return to university in-person.

As uncertainty surrounding when students will be able to return to university continues, Oxford University students have started to campaign for increased clarity from the government. Our Turn to Return, a campaign launched by college JCRs, is campaigning for all students to return to university from the beginning of next term.

The government had promised to update universities and the public by the end of the Easter holidays about when students on non-practical courses would be able to return. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that restrictions would begin to ease from April 12th with the opening of non-essential retail, theme parks and zoos, no information about universities was given. The University of Oxford announced on its website that guidance for non-practical courses may be delayed until after the vacation.

Nadia Hassan, President of the Trinity College JCR, started a petition to the government in order to bring attention to the frustrations felt by many students. She told Cherwell: “Considering the anger and upset that many students are feeling across I thought it would be the best way of uniting students under one cause and getting the national student voice heard”.

Ms Hassan continued: “Alike to the reopening of schools, universities should be prioritised because our education is essential. Why can our younger peers unite with their friends and resume their studies in-person while students in higher education are forced to remain and continue their studies online at home? Countless studies have shown how remote learning has had a negative impact on students’ mental health and wellbeing so it’s not illogical to conclude that students are better off studying at university alike to their younger peers in school.”

Since opening on April 12th, the petition has gained over 4000 signatures and has become one of the highest trending petitions on the website. The government responds to petitions which gain over 10,000 signatures, and those which amass over 100,000 will be considered for a debate in Parliament.

The petition calls for “all students to return at the start of the Summer term”. Before COVID restrictions meant that most students would be unable to return to university, there had been plans to stagger when students would be allowed to return to campus. Students on practical courses were allowed to return a week earlier than those who were not. Currently, undergraduate students on practical courses are able to return to Oxford from April 17th. Though those on non-practical courses are still waiting to hear when they can return.

Ms Hassan told Cherwell that staggering return dates for the Summer term would be unnecessary. “Most students [returned] during the last lockdown and a lot have returned for this term in different universities who interpret the guidance leniently. It is thus logical to state that this would not be a mass migration movement. We also have testing in place alike to schools, so we can minimalize infections in that way.”

Isobel Cook, President of the New College JCR, told Cherwell on behalf of Our Turn to Return: “At an earlier date, a staggered return may have been possible. However, the government has left the decision so incredibly late that, given the recent easing of restrictions in all other areas of society, the only fair thing to do is let students return for the beginning of their term. At the moment, these students, who have been made to wait for so long, are being made to feel like nothing more than pawns in a political game.”

“If students continue to study remotely at home, many will effectively have lost 1/3 of their degree to the pandemic. Whilst we recognise the sacrifices that have had to be made at all levels of society due to Covid-19, if the government is truly committed to prioritising education then it would not neglect University students in this way. The government has made the decision to re-open non-essential retail, as well as theme parks zoos and salons – is the education we are going into so much debt for really less important than all of these?” she continued.

Ms Cook also told Cherwell how students can help campaign to be allowed to return: “Sign the petition, share the link, follow the Facebook page, and spread the word in any way you can! You could share the petition with friends from other Universities, student leaders or societies, family members, or school group chats. You can also support the cause by writing to your MPs to encourage them to put pressure on Minister Donelan, and by contacting the media to increase the visibility of the campaign. Any efforts will be appreciated!”

A spokesperson from the Department for Education told Cherwell: “This has been an incredibly difficult time for students, and Government is committed to getting all students back into university as soon as the public health situation allows. Students on practical and creative courses started returning from the 8th of March, and we will be reviewing options for the timing of the return of all remaining students by the end of the Easter holidays. Decisions will take into account the need to protect progress across the wider roadmap out of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus in communities and pressures on the NHS.”

Image: SJPrice via pixabay.com

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