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Oxford undergrad calls for students to be allowed to return to accommodation ‘to boost wellbeing’

Isobel Cook is one of the founders of a petition, which has attracted almost 10,000 signatures since Monday.

Ministers should allow all university students to leave their “childhood bedrooms” and return to their friends in term-time accommodation to boost their mental health and provide stability, students say.

The Government has been accused of “repeatedly ignoring” university students and failing to prioritise education at a time when businesses, such as pub gardens and salons, have been allowed to reopen.

The criticism came after the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that all remaining students in England will not be allowed to return to in-person lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.

A parliamentary petition calling for students not to be “sidelined again” and to be allowed to return to campus at the start of the summer term, now has almost 10,000 backers.

Oxford student Isobel Cook said: “It’s disappointing to hear that, with the easing of lockdown in so many areas and with the shops and the pubs all open, that still education is not being prioritised in the way that we hope to see.”

The second-year modern languages and philosophy student said: “There’s still scope to say that people could return to university (now), but have virtual teaching which was the case for a lot of people in the autumn term.

“Because by being in the accommodation you still get that sense of support from other students.”

The updated guidance for universities says: “Wherever possible, providers should not ask students to return to their term time accommodation before they return to in-person teaching and learning.”

But students who need additional mental health support, or who do not have access to appropriate study spaces in vacation accommodation, have been allowed to return to term-time accommodation.

Ms Cook, who is the JCR President of New College at Oxford University, said she is “very worried” about the impact of Covid on students’ mental health.

The 19-year-old said: “There’s definitely something about being supported by people of your own age doing the same thing as you which you just can’t get at home no matter what your family situation is.”

Most students in England, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January. 

University students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8.

It is estimated that around half of university students in England are currently not eligible to return to in-person teaching until May 17 at the earliest.

When announcing the decision, universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “The movement of students across the country poses a risk for the transmission of the virus, particularly because of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of new variants.”

But recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that around three-quarters of students (76%) are living at the same address as they were at the start of the autumn term.

On the Government’s decision to delay the return due to the risks posed by mass movement, Ms Cook said: “I mean it doesn’t feel particularly genuine to me within the context that the Government has made their own decision independently to open non-essential retail and everything.

“It doesn’t feel appropriate at that point that they would not let the minority, like the 24% or so, who have been waiting so patiently for so long that they wouldn’t have been back.”

She added: “I have some very close friends at home waiting to return who maybe didn’t fit into the exemptions at the beginning when they were introduced, but over time have had such a tough time at home that they have started thinking about maybe they could apply for a mental health exemption because it’s been that difficult.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, said: “The students are right. 

“It is very odd how only the UCU and the Government seem to think the opposite.

“The overwhelming majority of students are back at their term-time addresses already, as shown in our recent poll. 

“This fact, combined with the fact that well-ventilated and socially-distanced teaching is considered to be relatively safe, mean ministers have called this one wrong.

“We were told education would be prioritised over other areas of life as lockdown eased, which is how it should be if we are to be fair to young people who have suffered so much in the crisis. 

“It is a great shame that is not now happening.”

The Department for Education (DfE) has asked the Office for Students to allocate an additional £15 million towards student mental health through proposed reforms to teaching grant funding.

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