Coronavirus

Cambridge college sets out to control students with severe Covid restrictions

BY Oliver Rhodes | tweet oliver_rhodes1   /  15 September 2020

The largest college at the University of Cambridge has followed several Oxford colleges in issuing a statement to its students, ensuring their compliance with strict coronavirus safety measures. A “Community Statement” issued by Trinity College, Cambridge, reserves the right to evict students, at their own expense, who fail to comply with aspects of the College’s new rules.

The letter states that students “may be required to move rooms/households (or to leave College) at any time as instructed by the College, and potentially with little notice” and that students “will have any access to College accommodation withdrawn and the Porters will secure repossession of [the] room” if students refuse to move when required.

Students will also be required to “bring only the minimum amount of belongings” to ensure “basic living standards”; ensure that no friends or family visit College premises; and that they have at least “three days’ supply of non-perishable food for use in the event of a lockdown.”

The College, which was founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, also reserves the right to institute “a temporary lock-down of rooms, staircases, courts and the entire College.” Truly no measure has been spared to maximise student welfare.

It is thought that most of the student body will support the University’s efforts to prevent the spread of the virus as far as it can. With teenagers housed alongside older, retired academics in close proximity, the risk of cross-generational contamination is particularly high in an Oxbridge college. The University has also put in place a weekly testing system for all students and staff.

But even with Covid, the issue of social justice – a hot-button issue for Cambridge students – matters. And in this respect, Trinity’s assurance to students that “the College’s top priority is your welfare” will ring hollow.

“The most affected group will undoubtedly be those students for whom Cambridge is their permanent place of residence,” says Charley Barnard, a fourth-year languages student and member of the Student Union’s “Class Act” campaign to promote the welfare of disadvantaged students. According to Barnard, that means “notably those who do not have families, who are estranged from their families, who themselves (or their families) are homeless or precariously housed, and those who have experienced local-authority care.”  Her statement on Trinity College’s new rules expresses concern: “This decision sets a precedent that other colleges may follow”.

Trinity owns an endowment three times the size of that possessed by the entire University of Edinburgh. Yet, unlike some other colleges, it has made no explicit assurance of financial support to its students in its public statements. The letter says that students can expect to move out “without help” from the College and at their own cost on multiple occasions.

Both the tone and content of the agreement are matched by the College’s initial response to lockdown, when Trinity was the first to advise its students to return home as soon as possible. Lockdown restrictions are likely to continue throughout the year.

Yet so far, at least, Trinity’s contract with its students has not been imitated at other colleges. At Downing College, students have been warned to bring only “essential items” in case of a last-minute move-out, but there has been as yet no effort to bind students to these guidelines. Most have issued statements assuring their students that they will provide assistance where they can, subject to government guidance.

Unlike at most universities, however, the collegiate system allows for much greater oversight of students at Oxford and Cambridge. Many live and study on college premises for much of their undergraduate career. Continued restrictions mean that living arrangements have had to be carefully re-arranged to ensure social distancing. “Household bubbles” organised within small groups of students have been designed to ensure they minimise peer-to-peer contact (and make very close friends along the way). Meanwhile, Faculty lecture programs have moved online, though one-to-one and small group teaching, prized at both Universities, remain intact as far as possible.

As committed as many Cambridge students will be to taking the restrictions seriously over the coming months, many will undoubtedly feel disgruntled at just how far colleges can go in pursuit of enforcing severe controls over their social lives. But life at other institutions may be even worse: at the University of Nottingham, a 19-year-old has been fined £10,000 by police for an illicit house party over the weekend. It is a striking message to students across the country, in the words of the Nottinghamshire Police, to “think again or face the consequences”.

Perhaps it is best that college porters, rather than policemen, will be the first to intervene – £9,300 in tuition fees for online lectures and canned quarantine food is bad enough without any further penalty.


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