It’s been a long, often lonely term for Helen Ross, who has spent most of it locked down in her cramped student flat in Glasgow with just one friend, studying law in her bedroom. She’s excited to see her mum again for Christmas, but anxious about going back to Ullapool, her remote home town of 1,500 people in the Highlands. “I don’t think I could deal with the knowledge I brought the virus home to a fragile and precious community, and to my family,” she says.
Ross is taking every precaution possible: she’s been self-isolating and will be driven north by a friend’s mum after taking a coronavirus test. She wants to spend time with her mum, an exhausted NHS worker who lives alone after her husband – Helen’s father – passed away during Helen’s freshers week. “She’s been getting through the last slog of the year by looking forward to having me,” she says.
This weekend, many students like Helen will be boarding trains and hitching a ride in their parents’ cars as they head home for Christmas after a difficult first term at university. In England, they’ve been instructed to observe a travel window that runs from 3 until 9 December.
Students have been asked to secure a negative coronavirus test before leaving, but since these aren’t obligatory and a positive result forces them to spend another fortnight self-isolating on campus, lots are opting out. A survey of 1,000 students by marketing agency Hype Collective found that 31% aren’t planning to get a test.
“Personally I don’t know anyone booking one, because if it’s positive you’re here on your own longer, so they’d rather just not know,” says Rosie Tiffin, a first-year student at the University of Manchester.
Even if students do want a test, the National Union of Students is concerned that they won’t have access to them due to capacity issues, and there is uncertainty over what happens in the event of a positive result.
“If students have to self-isolate there is currently no guaranteed government or university support for them. Students remain unjustly excluded from the £500 low-income self-isolation payment and, as SAGE have identified, financial insecurity means people can struggle to comply fully,” says NUS vice-president for higher education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio.
Finances are a problem for Rosie, whose priority is returning to her hometown of Huntingdon to resume working for two local pubs and get out of her overdraft. “I was originally expecting to get a term time job in Manchester, but then Covid happened and lockdown has ruined that,” she says.
Rosie also wants to celebrate her December birthday with friends at home, since she’s struggled to find her tribe at university as a result of a social circle restricted by Covid rules. It’s been hard for her to find someone with whom to search for a student flat for next year, a worry that threatens to disturb her Christmas break. “Everyone in my halls has decided their groups and for housing next year, which you’re meant to do early, and I haven’t taken part in that. It can be isolating,” she says.
The silver lining for Rosie is that she enjoys her course. But this isn’t the case for everyone. A recent poll of over 1,000 students by the Higher Education Policy Institute showed that just over half are satisfied with their online teaching, while a similar proportion said they were worried about the return to term next year.
This is a concern for Lauren Power, a second-year student at Bath Spa, whose parents’ house is in rural Derbyshire. She’s worried that the government’s plans to stagger 1.2 million students’ return to English universities until 7 February, and to study online at home in the meantime, could mean that she’s expected to log onto her lectures using her family’s shaky WiFi connection.
While there will be exemptions for students who need them – campuses will remain open for students who don’t have homes to go to, such as care-leavers and those estranged from their families – she feels that there hasn’t been enough communication with students about what to expect from the return to university.
“I’m in halls of residence and they want us to book a slot to move out in, and want us to book slots to come back, but we haven’t had any information about when to book them, which isn’t very helpful for booking trains in advance to get them as cheap as possible,” she says.
While there have been worries that students might drop out, recent Student Finance England figures suggest that numbers are below last year’s, with 5,500 students withdrawing from their courses this autumn, compared with 6,100 last year. However, these figures only cover the period up until 29 November, and concerns persist among universities that some students may not return after the Christmas break.
Ellie Joliffe is one of the students who dropped out in November. “The combination of the debilitating effects of the virus with complete social isolation, which was strictly monitored by security guards, created a hostile and unwelcoming environment to tackle some of the most challenging academic work I’ve ever been set,” she says. “Freshers week wasn’t something I had expected, but I certainly didn’t imagine being locked inside my university room without even access to the kitchen.”
While the same won’t be true for many students, this was the right decision for Ellie. She’s secured a job as a care assistant and is making tentative travel plans for next year. She’s even opted to switch degree to a five week intro programme at a radical new university, the London Interdisciplinary School, which mixes arts, science and business skills.
For those students who do plan to remain, several weeks with their families will be a welcome break from isolation and studying online. But Helen is anxious about what she’ll go back to. “I’m kind of worried about next term, because this one’s been rough emotionally. I’ve just been on autopilot doing nothing but studying,” she says. “I just think for my mental health it’s going to be a difficult one.”