Image description: Visualisation of the covid virus that has spread in Oxford and elsewhere.
Oxford University’s covid rules have been nebulous in places, but progress has undoubtedly been made in the struggle against this virus. As the Omicron wave begins to recede, it is time to reflect on our experience with the university’s covid regulations. For many Oxford students, it has been a hard, unrelenting, punishing slog. And that was Hilary 2021. The residency requirement was waived and only students with specific needs could return to Oxford. Almost all teaching and exams went online during the cold, dank, dark, dreary months of January and February, as The Oxford Student reported on the 6th January 2021. Memories can also be very short, but the Oxford Student Union secured a great victory. Its pressure on the university helped lead to accommodation fees being relinquished for students who did not return in Hilary 2021 and for those who chose not to return in Trinity 2021. The £9250 tuition fee remained untouched nevertheless. The fact that there was no form of concession or refund is a moral disgrace.
There is a very serious point here, which is that as a university and a community, we marched through the deluge of challenges to arrive at a point of progress.
We can all now appreciate what the term ‘in-person’ means.
It means opportunity. The opportunity to meet new people without the screen freezing and the opportunity to share emotions collectively. The opportunity to cry, mumble, grumble, smile and laugh together.
Humans are social, purposive beings and with the easing of restrictions at Oxford University, we must celebrate that we are returning to a truer expression of our human nature.
In more concrete terms, the progress that has been made can be seen in that the university is now operating at Stage 2 of its Business Continuity Framework. In Hilary 2021, the university was at Stage 3.
It is important that the university’s rules are significantly less taxing than they were in Hilary 2021. In the UK we are substantially closer to a situation where covid is endemic. The high vaccination rate at the university is also especially encouraging. The Covid-19 Student Vaccination Survey in November 2021, in which nearly 50% of students responded, revealed that 98% of respondents were either partially or fully vaccinated.
Yet despite these tentatively positive signs, there are some clear ambiguities in the university’s covid rules.
There is an ‘expectation that most teaching’ will take place in person this term, which sounds promising. Yet later in the guidance, it states that there ‘may be some occasions’ when staff choose an online format, because they believe that it is the most educationally effective approach. This provides teaching staff with more reasons to deliver content online, which may stray away from being directly related to covid. Yet many of these classes, tutorials and lectures will have been delivered in-person pre-pandemic. Our tuition fees still stand at the eye-watering £9250 if you are a UK student and more if you are an international student. But one thing changes, the university’s costs: they fall. If a student or member of staff has covid, then that will understandably mean an online session, but if this is not apparent, then every sinew must be strained to teach in-person. We are social, purposive beings, who thrive off others’ energy, communication and ideas.
Nobody has come to university to sit in their room constantly for £9250. They could stay at home for free.
There is also ambiguity over the holding of events at the university. Business and community events, as well as large internal events are discouraged from being held in-person, but commercial events can continue to be held ‘where feasible.’ What is the difference between ‘business’ and ‘commercial’ events?
Let’s take a look at the other rules. Face coverings are mandated in all teaching, assessment and library settings. They must also be worn when individuals are moving around buildings. Social distancing is not formally required and staff who are able to work from home are expected to continue to do so. All students were also encouraged to take a lateral flow test less than twenty-four hours before their return to Oxford, then take another test on the day they arrived in Oxford and another test three days later. Students are also strongly advised to test themselves twice a week and take the booster vaccine. All of this is proportional, measured and sensible. Overall, the university’s covid response has been superior to the UK government’s circus.
Yet, the most frustrating, head-banging inducing aspect of the university’s covid rules is arguably the lack of unity in the colleges’ responses. It is comparable to Johnson’s ‘go to work, but don’t go to work’ press conference in May 2021, when ambiguities and inconsistencies reigned supreme in the rule book.
At my college, Worcester, it was announced that the SCR will not be open for dining, but it is for coffee.
Covid and coffee must have some sort of special relationship.
It was also announced at the beginning of Hilary that the bar will only open for takeaway, although this decision was abruptly revoked. On the 19th of January, the bar will return to a semi-normal service. Talk about governing by U-turn. More progress in easing restrictions must be made. Formal and social events with catering requirements will also not go ahead in January. This is disproportionate and onerous, as pubs, restaurants and even nightclubs are open without any restrictions. I even went to an Aston Villa match against Man Utd where thousands queued inside for burgers and chips. Caution and protection are imperative, but paranoia leads to paralysis; we need more progress. In times of national emergency, such as a pandemic, the colleges’ autonomy should be restricted and decision-making centralised at the level of the Vice-Chancellor and their leadership team.
At least we are in a better place than in Hilary 2021. I believe that things can only get better. Let us take encouragement from the predictions of scientists such as Professor David Heymann, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He has stated that due to the high level of population immunity, the UK will be one of the first countries where covid will become endemic. Let us hope and dream: progress awaits.