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28 September 2020

The universities crisis exposes the government’s failures on Covid-19

The absence of an effective test and trace system is forcing a harmful new lockdown.  

By Stephen Bush

Students at Manchester Metropolitan University have been asked not to leave their accommodation for 14 days, with some residents reporting security guards prevented them from leaving the building, as the university looks to contain an outbreak of Covid-19.

The news comes as teaching at many institutions transitions to being entirely online, with students across the UK being told to self-isolate in their university housing. Such accommodation, whether it is pile-’em-high-sell-’em-cheap purpose-built student housing constructed in the past decade or the poorly maintained homes of multiple occupancies in the private rented sector, tends to be of particularly low quality. (Some exceptions apply, of course.) 

The problem this exposes is twofold: the first is that many universities are so reliant on squeezing cash out of their students that they have opted to cajole and, in some cases, essentially force them to return to living near their universities, even when they are not being taught in person. It’s hard to see how we will get to the end of the academic year without universities having to offer some degree of refund, whether on the cost of housing or on tuition directly, neither of which they can afford.

The second is the frankly appalling standard of living that people will be subjected to with continued lockdowns. This speaks to the human consequences of the government’s failure to build up the healthcare system’s resilience or to put in a proper system to test, trace and isolate new cases of the novel coronavirus. The mental health and economic toll of another lockdown – to the extent that we’re not in one already – is real and substantial; this second lockdown has to be better spent by the government than the last, which means no time spent on pet projects and obsessions, and more time on serious measures to live with Covid-19.

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