On April 12th, I enjoyed my first taste of freedom from the bottom of a pint glass. I could have gone to the barbers, although alas my lack of foresight means my shapeless mop shall persist for some weeks yet. I could have gone to a zoo or away on holiday. Yet inconceivably I was not allowed to return to the university I have been attending effectively virtually for over a year now. As young families and elderly neighbours revelled in their regained freedom, I could not help but feel that mine was still impossibly far away. In spite of effective demands from universities for clarity and the right to reopen, the plight of students has been met with indifference. Almost as an afterthought on Tuesday students were informed that they could expect to return from 17th May 'at the earliest'. After a year of neglect, this disregard has become unacceptable.
Let us first be clear on several vital points. Firstly, throughout this pandemic young people have been asked to sacrifice the best years of their lives in order to fight a virus which they themselves are essentially immune to. In December, the Sun estimated that, when excluding those with underlying medical conditions, just 388 people under the age of 60 had died of COVID-19 in the UK. I don’t think anyone of any political persuasion would have advocated the stringent measures imposed upon the British people if that level of risk were universal. We have, then, spent much of the last year shuttered inside to protect other, more vulnerable sections of society. Many of us have been glad to do so. Yet we are not all in it together. For us the cost of our freedom has been particularly high.
It is also important to note that throughout this pandemic university students have been left in a uniquely scandalous position. When COVID-19 hit and events and plans of all kinds were cancelled, providers were required, by law, to respond. Contracts were rescinded. Deposits were refunded. Yet at universities no acknowledgement, even now, has been given that what we signed up for is no longer what we are receiving. Universities that marketed themselves on student experience have sealed those same students into their accommodation blocs for enforced isolation. Fees have been maintained at high levels despite students learning from home, without access to labs or libraries and with second-rate online teaching and sometimes no provision at all. The pandemic has engendered a crisis in student consumer rights that has been buried by a partnership of convenience between university administrations and the government. On this thorny issue it has been far too easy to look away, or perhaps more accurately to make students pay the very real price. The bureaucratic appeals process, designed to atomise student appeals and disguise the widespread degradation of university education this year, only adds insult to injury.
In this context, the news that students will not formally be allowed to return to university feels much like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Despite the lowest case and death rates since September, students effectively remain confined to their homes, isolated from their friends as their mental health worsens at a rate four times higher than the population as a whole. That vulnerable octogenarians can now enjoy a Sunday roast in a pub garden but healthy students cannot receive the teaching they have been paying (and waiting) for for a year is not only non-sensical; it is indefensible. The government is rightly proud of the success of its vaccination rollout and its new mass testing programme. The vast majority of vulnerable people are now well protected against coronavirus. If these impressive achievements cannot be used to facilitate student’s return to universities, but only to open tattoo parlours and allow crowds to throng at sporting events, then something is badly wrong.
I am a proud Conservative. The last year, despite its challenges, have given our country and party much to be proud of. Yet friends must always be able to speak frankly to one another. I know, from numerous conversations, that I am only one of many young Conservatives disgusted by the continual indifference towards our predicament. We are not asking for special treatment. We are asking for our government to treat us like the adults and constituents we are and to lift lockdown in a manner that is not only driven by science, but by fairness also. Cambridge and other universities must do all they can to prioritise students at this extremely difficult time. We have paid for this pandemic with our youth and time is running out to redeem the education we have pursued at an increasingly high price. This callous insensitivity not only jeopardises the next few months; it risks sending the overwhelming and inaccurate message that the Conservative Party has nothing but contempt for young people. I urge our government to reconsider. This article is co-signed by the Easter Term 2021 CUCA Committee