Universities inundated with student requests to return to campus

Universities have been inundated with requests from students wanting to return to campus, amid claims that their mental health will suffer if they stay at home. 

Some institutions – including numerous Oxford and Cambridge colleges – have received so many appeals from students that they have had to turn some away. 

The majority of students have been advised to stay at home and continue their studies remotely during the national lockdown. 

Only those taking degrees in a select group of subjects – such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary sciences and social work – have been told they are allowed to return to university where face-to-face lectures will resume. 

The Department for Education has published guidance setting out the other circumstances in which students should be allowed to return to their university residence which include reasons such as mental health, lack of study space at home or for research that cannot be done remotely.

But university sources have told The Telegraph that students are using the mental health provision in an attempt to secure their return to campus. 

“A clever student will soon be able to argue that even from their mansion in Knightsbridge somehow or other they meet the criteria,” a source said. 

“They will say, ‘my wifi isn’t good enough’ or ‘I am feeling mentally queasy’. In some cases it will be perfectly genuine because they are in the middle of nowhere and their wifi is poor or because they have difficult home circumstances.”

The more students that return to campus accommodation, the more staff that are needed on-site, the source said, adding: “We have a duty of care not to let all the inmates back so they can have a jolly time. We are also sensitive to not having too many youngsters floating around as the local population gets grumpy.”

Cambridge students have written an open letter to the vice-Chancellor urging him to instigate a compassionate approach to allowing students with mental health concerns back this term. 

“We can see from anecdotal accounts that many students with mental health concerns have had their requests to return to Cambridge denied and, worse, have been treated with contempt when they were rightly attempting to safeguard their own wellbeing,” the letter said. 

It cited a “dismissive” email from a tutor from one College who said: “I observe that it is only the freshers who have been saying they want to return to Cambridge, I wonder if there is a mega group chat where you’re winding each other up, the other years are very relaxed because they’ve already done Easter term remotely. Or perhaps they are simply a bit older and more resigned to the difficulties of life during a global health emergency.”

Meanwhile, New College at Oxford has asked students to consider withdrawing their application to return to the college after they received more applications than they could accommodate.

Richard Smith, chief executive of Unite which is the largest provider of student accommodation in the country, said that just over a third of their students were currently on-site. 

“We have occupancy of around 35 per cent,” he told The Telegraph, explaining that this includes international students who remained in their campus accommodation throughout the Christmas break. 

“We have done a couple of pieces of research and north of 90 per cent of students said they absolutely want to be on campus,” Mr Smith said. 

“It is not the normal university experience that they were planning for, but life isn’t normal for anyone. Students do want to be getting on with their lives. Going to university is so much more than studying and coming out with a degree. It is about coming of age, the experiences, and students want to get on with that.”

Earlier this week Unite announced that it would give students a 50 per cent rent reduction if they did not return to their campus accommodation during the first month of term. 

On Thursday the higher education watchdog warned that universities that they may need to refund students if their remote lectures fell short of the academic offering they had promised students.

The Office for Students told vice-Chancellors to conduct a review to ensure that they were acting in line with consumer law.

“If you conclude that new or returning students were not provided with sufficiently clear information about how teaching and assessment would be delivered in 2020-21, or that teaching and assessment were not delivered as promised, we expect you actively to consider your obligations under consumer law for refunds or other forms of redress,” the regulator said. 

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