Bordering ‘the students’: Migration and infection control in the Pandemic University Town

Lorena Gazzotti, Kanika Mahajan, Victoria Reeser, Felix Reilly, Jodi-Ann Juexuan Wang & Ella Wilson

Since COVID19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, University campuses have come under close scrutiny as high-risk environments for virus transmission. In the early days of the pandemic response, Universities switched to online learning and urged their students to go ‘home’, under the imperative to decrease the number of people on site to control infections. Towards the end of summer 2020, scientists started warning that UK universities were “highly likely” to experience significant COVID19 outbreaks. These warnings were sustained by evidence from the US, where universities that had brought students back to campus and resumed face-to-face teaching had recorded significant number of infections. Despite the evidence, UK universities required their students to return to campus for the 2020/21 academic year. 

For many, this move was unsurprising: marketisation has made the budget of UK universities highly dependent on student fees and rental income. After the pandemic started, the UK government refused to offer a comprehensive bailout to universities, and provided very limited financial support to HE institutions – including advanced payment of student fees to help with cashflow, and conditional emergency loans to universities in need of a ‘last resort’ support. The need to secure both rental income and student fees thus pushed universities to bring students back to campus. 

As the COVID19 pandemic unfolded, ‘the students’ have distinctively emerged as a newly securitised social group, subjected to heightened control measures from both governments and universities. In contemporary Britain, ‘the students’ condense both the extractive aspirations and the security anxieties of the neoliberal state. They are consumers in a marketised Higher Education sector that is dependent on student fees and rental income to survive. They are foreign bodies whose presence in space is regulated through visa regimes. They are users of education buildings and student halls that make social distancing tricky, when not impossible. These three systems of extraction and control (marketisation, border control, and infection containment) try to govern ‘the students’ through clashing imperatives: they try to attract students to campus, while at the same time limiting their presence in the country, in universities, and in halls of residence. 

The Pandemic University Town thus emerges as an inherently contradictory space, made of practices that bring students together while keeping them at a distance. Policies of mandatory return to campus, in fact, were complemented by a corollary of control measures to establish ‘safe campuses’. At Cambridge, these included the decision to move all large-group lectures online and offer weekly tests to all students. Promises of normalcy under pandemic times were rather transitory: swiftly after the beginning of the academic year, Universities around the country started recording COVID19 outbreaks, and ‘the students’ started being pointed at as a risk for infection surge in local communities.

Sign marking the entrance to a shared student accommodation in a Cambridge college.

For a student newly arrived on campus, testing positive or being identified as a close contact of a positive case meant being trapped into student accommodation. This sense of generalised entrapment grew as the UK government announced new lockdowns in November 2020 and January 2021. When lockdown no. 3 hit, Cambridge showed some flexibility: the university moved all teaching online for Lent term, lifted the requirement to return on site for international students who were abroad, and colleges assured that rent would not be charged to those who were not in residence. However, these assurances came too late for international students who had come to the UK at the beginning of the year and could not leave the country due to limited and prohibitively expensive flights, and the signature of expensive rental contracts for the entire year. As lockdown continued, students who could not leave were effectively trapped in the Pandemic University Town, dislocated from home, in an environment that kept on being unfamiliar. 

The response of the collegiate university to the pandemic, however, did not only erected an invisible border around Cambridge. It also produced boundaries of belonging within the city space – between students belonging to different colleges, between students living in college and students renting privately, and between UK/EU students and international students. At Cambridge, almost everywhere within the city centre is part of the collegiate university: the faculty offices, the libraries, a few of the cafés, and even some of the gardens. The University and its 31 constituent colleges play a pervasive role in the everyday life of the students inhabiting it: they provide – and thus retain control over – education, accommodation, meals, leisure, and wellbeing resources.

Students and staff, however, do not evenly move across these spaces: every student belongs to one of the 31  colleges, with an unequal level of amenities and support offered to students across the board. To students quarantining after international travel or after testing positive for COVID19, some colleges are able to provide en suite accommodations, student buddies for support, and catering services. Other colleges are limited in these regards: students share kitchen and bathrooms with housemates, risking everyone’s safety, and collect their own food, often through food delivery services that are costly. In some college accommodation, staff mark access to the household or room of a quarantining student through signs with red lettering, and even tape, which risks to create a pariah effect between those who pass by and the student(s) inside.

A sign marking entrance to a quarantine room in Fitzwilliam College

For those who live and work in the University, the control mechanisms inherent to the functioning of the pandemic university extend their reach outside working and studying life to embrace and regulate much more minute details of social life. Free from quarantine, students and faculty must abide by the different rules each college has made in response to national Covid19 restrictions. Students’ capacity to socialize, access services, and navigate the pandemic university town greatly depended on their college affiliation. Colleges often apply tighter levels of restrictions than national standard, including tighter restrictions on visitors, and use of college facilities such as gymnasiums. Policing methods also exceeded the national disciplinary measures: Jesus College, for example, was harshly criticized for informing students that they might face disciplinary measures for breaking Covid19 rules, even if that circumstance had been disclosed while reporting harassment. King’s and Downing colleges, instead, implemented a system of fines to discipline students breaching COVID19 restrictions.  

In this climate of uncertainty over overcrowded accommodation and increased policing, many students decided to rent privately. Another border thus emerged between students living in college and students living outside college. Students who live in private accommodation avoid additional COVID19 restrictions set by the colleges. However, they also are less likely or unable to attend college hosted events that traditionally have provided students with a sense of community and belonging. Although Cambridge launched an university-wide asymptomatic testing system in early October 2020, this was initially accessible only to students living in college accommodation. Students rented privately were only able to access the system starting from 30 November 2020

For international students, boundaries of belonging became even more pronounced. Already in June 2020, the Graduate Union, the representative body for graduate and mature undergraduate students at Cambridge University, rang the alarm about the potential exacerbation of xenophobia resulting from the pandemic, along with an increase in “targeted racism and violence against African-Caribbean, Black, Asian and European communities”. It further warned that new forms of discrimination may emerge, given the changing nature of human interaction under the conditions of the pandemic. Over the summer 2020, student press at Cambridge reported incidents of students feeling “out of place” and being subjected to aggressive racist statements, with one student stating that she was asked if she “had coronavirus because [she] looked Chinese.” The sense of “belonging” to the University space has also been adversely impacted by the perceived apathy of the University to international students.  In August 2020, prior to the start of Michaelmas term, the International Students’ Campaign and Cambridge Students Union released an open letter with a list of demands relating to the pandemic. The letter, signed by over 600 international students, expressed frustration with the “lack of empathy” with which the University had responded to their concerns, including their anxieties pertaining to difficulties in returning home in case a second-wave of cases hits the UK. Policies of return to campus aggravated such boundaries as their costs were much higher for international students: visa application processes with long wait-times and exorbitant fees, heightened and rerouted flights, extra expenses on testing before flights, and for many flying from outside the UK Travel Corridor, 14 days of mandatory quarantine with mixed levels of support. 

There are many ironies to the University town’s erected borders. Often, state’s control on a population entails excluding a certain identifiable group from entering a particular space. In this case, control over ‘the students’ was established by obliging them to move to the university town, under conditions that made it very difficult for many to leave it. The Pandemic University Town thus emerges as a fractured social space, financially dependent on the presence of students but actively containing their movement in, within, and outside of it.

Kanika Mahajan, Victoria Reeser, Felix Reilly, Jodi-Ann Juexuan Wang, and Ella Wilson are completing an MPhil programme in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Lorena Gazzotti is a research fellow at Lucy Cavendish College and CRASSH, University of Cambridge’

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