• The Star Staff

‘It really was abandonment.’ Virus crisis grips British universities

By Benjamin Mueller

Inside a dormitory now known by students as HMP, for Her Majesty’s Prison, trash piled up in shared kitchens. Students washed their clothes in bathroom sinks. Security guards stalked the gates, keeping anyone from leaving or entering.

The building had been primed for a coronavirus outbreak since first-year students arrived at Manchester Metropolitan University for Freshers’ Week, Britain’s debaucherous baptism into university life, complete with trips to heaving pubs and dorm room parties.

But when the inevitable happened, and the virus tore through chockablock student suites, the university largely left students on their own: It imposed such a draconian lockdown that students had to nurse roommates back to health, parents drove hours to deliver food and lawyers offered pro bono help.

To date, roughly 90 British universities have reported coronavirus cases. Thousands of students are confined to their halls, some in suites with infected classmates, and many are struggling to get tested. The government, fearful of students seeding outbreaks far from campus, has warned that they may need to quarantine before returning home for Christmas.

Britain had ample warning: The reopening of American colleges weeks earlier reportedly swelled the country’s case count by 3,000 a day and left several students dead. But British universities beckoned students to campus anyway, fueling outbreaks that are seeping into surrounding towns. The infection rate in Manchester is ten times as high as it was in August.

The outbreaks have shone a harsh light on Britain’s decadelong campaign to turn higher education into a ruthless market. By cutting state grants and leaving schools dependent on tuition fees and room rents, the government encouraged them to jam more students onto campuses.

The pandemic threatened to dry out that income stream. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government largely withheld the rescue money it gave to other industries, so universities carried on as normal, whatever the risks.

To academics, the government’s policies reflect not only its erratic and fumbling approach to the coronavirus, but also its long-standing suspicions of universities. Echoing American ideas about the supposed coddling of left-wing students, some Conservative lawmakers in Britain have accused universities of stifling politically incorrect speech, and threatened a crackdown.

“There’s a lot of money being splashed around on other parts of the economy, but the government isn’t offering universities any money,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “The relevant people in government see universities as antagonists, political antagonists, and people like me as the enemy.”

The situation was complicated by a scandal over university entrance exams this summer. After initially using an algorithm that lowered many students’ scores, the government revised them upward.

That created an unexpected influx into more prestigious universities, as students abandoned places in less competitive ones, said Dr. Gavan Conlon, a partner at London Economics, an education economics consulting firm.

Some schools abruptly lost enrollment and revenue, but many became more crowded than ever. That made it impossible for Britain’s universities to implement the sort of on-campus social distancing that U.S. colleges have used to try to contain the virus.

At Manchester Metropolitan, a 33,000-student campus, at least 137 students were quickly infected and 1,500 freshmen forced to isolate.

Supplied with little more than a single mask each, some first-year students watched their food supplies dwindle and trash and laundry accumulate when coronavirus cases forced their suites into isolation. Lucia Dorado, a freshman, recalled leaving meals and tea at a suitemate’s door, and watching students keep partying in the courtyard.

“It really was abandonment,” Dorado said of the university. “They put in barely anything to battle this, and it’s come at the expense of our mental and physical health, really.”

The university said in a statement that shortly after the lockdown, it gave students a two-week rent rebate and an online shopping voucher, and later helped send them home testing kits. It said it had reopened in part because “the government places a high priority on universities staying open,” but on Tuesday moved most courses online for October, in keeping with guidance from Manchester public health officials.

The British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies forecast the difficulties on Sept. 3, saying it was “highly likely there will be significant outbreaks” at universities.

But neither mass testing nor additional government money was in the offing, and universities feared losing students to competitors if they shut campuses or mandated online classes.

“The government has been deafeningly silent,” said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, “and has been looking to basically foist the initiative back on universities.”

The financial pressures on universities grew out of a Conservative-led overhaul of British higher education in 2010, when the government slashed subsidies and tripled the cap on tuition fees to 9,000 pounds, or $11,600. The government later lifted a limit on how many students a university could recruit, transforming a higher education system that had once been the reserve of the middle and upper classes and creating fierce competition for students.

Rental fees rose as universities scrambled to build dormitories, often with loans: From 2012 to 2019, the overall average student rent rose by 31%, to 147 pounds, or $190, a week.

And universities began aggressively recruiting higher-paying foreign students, especially from China, to compensate for the government keeping its cap on domestic students’ tuition virtually unchanged since 2010.

The growing reliance on student payments left universities dangerously exposed when the coronavirus landed, said Peter Dolton, an economics professor at the University of Sussex. Fearing that huge numbers of students would stay home this fall, or demand lower fees if classes moved online, almost all universities reopened.

The decision left professors demoralized; some have felt pressure to teach in-person classes and others have described feeling uneasy about a semester that they say is being staged for transparently financial reasons.

Students, too, said it had become all too clear why they were on campus.

“Students are money in the bank, and as long as we’re on campus, they’ll worry about the consequences later,” said Aslan Warburton, a freshman at Manchester Metropolitan. “The financial side has taken priority over student well-being and the greater good.”

Despite calls from the opposition Labour Party to halt in-person classes, most British universities have resisted moving all classes online. But in the hardest-hit cities, there are signs that universities are beginning to restrict classroom teaching.

And with the fees for many students becoming ineligible for refunds soon, some professors suspect that universities may wait until students’ money is in hand before taking more aggressive precautions.

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