Covid-19 and student accommodation in England: An ecological approach to living and learning

Zachery Spire

In light of Covid-19, debate surrounding student accommodation rages in England. The social and economic value(s) of student accommodation are being weighed against the public health risks associated with hundreds of thousands of domestic and international students moving across English towns and cities. Student accommodation as an idea, a method of housing students and a mode of higher education in England is under pressure. 

Like the “town” and “gown” tensions that led to primitive halls of residence at Oxford, very few sharp changes have caused such an upheaval in approach, operation and expectation of student accommodation in England. What matters is the impression this is a big deal, a critical part of the students’ ‘experience’ of English universities. Old ideals and social attitudes are being displaced by ideas and social attitudes of now. Covid-19 is like a historical revival, displacing students, staff, institutional budgets and putting town-gown relations at the centre of a complex and contested stage. 

Earlier days

Early in summer, Cambridge University came out and noted that it would put some large lectures online, maintain social distanced small groups and the tutorials it is known for. But it made no promises. This is all contingent on the state of affairs when we reach the start of school. Down south, UCL stated that it would open its halls and welcome students at the predicted start of the academic year. Heading north, students in Northumbria-Newcastle Universities arrive in mid to late-September and the postgraduate taught and research students to pick up shortly thereafter. 

Now, of the 15 major Covid-19 hotspots in England, 11 of these are in mid-large university towns/cities. The NHS and government science agencies have just announced students cannot return back “home” if lockdown is initiated in the next 2-3 weeks. Instead, students must shelter in their current accommodation (at their institution). This has led said towns/cities to issue dire warnings of fines, jail and universities to threaten expulsion if a student violates the protocols. So much for liberal strong holds, now students are paying for imprisonment. 

Return to live and learn

As students continue to trickle into towns and cities whispers of a prison-like atmosphere and panopticons echo through our yards. Student accommodation intake rules are heavily enforced. Students are permitted to be accompanied by one family member (no friends). Students are allotted 25 minutes to unpack their cars/vans/whatever, and ‘move-in’ to their study bedroom/studio/flat. 

Students receive their welcome packs, a small box of welcome favours from the institution and a welcome kit with the protocols, directions, rules and responsibilities (and liabilities) for the next 4 months. These terms are a contractual agreement between the students and the university, operator and provider of student accommodation. The BBC is blasting in the common kitchen. Pictures of students and staff, parents and guardians splash across the screen. Warm wishes and welcomes hide the tense and underlying concerns everyone is facing. Is 2 metres enough? Masks on at all times, but who will enforce this? What happens if my neighbour has a small lot of friends over for a pint and a football match? What are the rules? Who is to say? What will I do? All well. They’re here now. Time to get on with it. 

Winter is coming

Surging Covid-19 cases have caused several universities to instigate lockdowns. Students are told they are now under 24/7 CCTV monitoring in and across all student accommodations and institutional facilities. They’ve been required to install a Covid-19 app on their phones and computers in order to provide accurate location data in the event a positive test is found in a lecture hall, lab, dining hall and anywhere else 2-6 people (the maximum allowable now) congregate. 

There are dubious claims this could have all been avoided. As if keeping students home would auto-eliminate their movements and activities that have now (allegedly) caused mass infection spikes across England. This dualistic thinking is not only unhelpful, it is woefully inaccurate. But reason, evidence and expertise wasn’t the modus operandi and squabbling will not answer our questions post-fact.

We were scared. We were afraid we would lose their posts and the institutions would become financially insolvent. We knew that students wanted to go back. Many had already paid their housing contracts for the next 10-12 months. Thousands of pounds, life savings already vested. They had gone too far to let it all fail now, no matter the consequences. 

But there were consequences, especially for non-students, vulnerable students and staff. We now have angry and panicked people across towns on lockdown with prison/panopticon levels of monitoring entry/exit. We have moved to online/ICT/distance based education and coursework, but this reminds us of March 2020. If we’d have spent the time to make online courses that were engaging and quality, we’d have a totally new online offer. We didn’t, we wanted normal. And despite our best efforts, despite all the resources we could throw at this thing, it didn’t go to plan. And that’s now left institutions, students and the towns/cities that surround them on a razor’s edge. Now, it would seem, the whole project is in peril.

An ecological approach

Student accommodation in England has been classified as an asset class in real estate literature. However, times have caused us to rethink what is possible. And, now might be a good time to re-classify and re-categorize these “assets” to serve non-student populations (18-25 year old). Marmot (2005) and Whyte (2019) propose that we revisit student accommodation as just accommodation for students, keep the bells and whistles and marketing promises…they’ve been proven too difficult to fulfil. Perhaps, instead of providing student accommodation facilities strictly for students, we can open these and include more young people age 18-25 years/vulnerable populations and consider how these buildings will evolve in the future to become social housing. 

While it will be incredibly difficult to revise our traditional, idealistic approach to student accommodation for the exclusive use of students, absorbing these housing facilities for students and non-students alike might go a long way to resolving some of the classist, isolationist and gentrifying effects of student accommodation on English towns and cities. History, it would seem, repeats itself unless we revise the ending of our own fairy tales. Perhaps, now, it is time for Barnett’s ecological university. An ecological, holistic approach includes a balance of economic and social, moral and ethical dimensions of student accommodation and universities. We learned but we must better prepare and respond now, and, next time a crisis such as Covid-19 arises on the shores of our universities. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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