Classicm studies

Students in the north are being forced to isolate with no symptoms, while testing is available for all Cambridge students

5th October 2020

“It feels like it’s one rule for them and another for Manchester,” says Rachel Topping, a Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) student.

Rachel is one of many aggrieved students in locked-down northern cites who are struggling to access tests, while Cambridge University offered its students unconditional testing, symptoms or not.

 “I think it’s really unfair, surely that’s a waste of tests that we apparently already don’t have enough of,” she continues. “If there aren’t enough tests to do that for everyone, then it shouldn’t be done at all.”

Since freshers arrived at English and Welsh universities in the last two weeks, dozens of universities have reported Covid-19 cases and Manchester is the hotspot.

Last week, a spike of 137 positive coronavirus cases meant that some 1,700 students across two halls of residences in Manchester had to lockdown for two weeks, effective immediately. On Friday, it was reported that Fallowfield Central — the area where most Manchester students reside — is now the country’s fastest rising area, seeing 149 new confirmed cases in the seven days up to 27 September.  Still, at the time of writing, only 800 students have taken a test, less than double the number of students forced to isolate.

This is a stark contrast to Cambridge University, where students are being offered voluntary, unconditional testing which will be pooled by households. The university plans to test one person per household each week and their results will determine whether that household will have to isolate. Cambridge has said that this is vital in making sure asymptomatic students don’t unknowingly spread the virus, which was likely the case at MMU.

This testing system means less disruption to Cambridge students’ educations and likely fewer people contracting the virus.

I don’t see anything that the uni has done to keep us safe

Lucy*, a PhD student at Cambridge confirmed she’d been offered voluntary, weekly testing. “I think it’s a great idea, and I am extremely lucky,” she says. 

But, while Lucy feels lucky, many northern students feel worried and overlooked. Janice Adu, another MMU student, told The Overtake: “I wouldn’t say I feel safe because I don’t see anything that the uni has done to keep us safe, or to even communicate with us about it.” She says that MMU students were only informed about the lockdown in halls days after the fact.

Janice also says that knowing Cambridge students are being allowed weekly tests makes her feel even less safe.

It seems we are dealing with it alone

“It’s like they would just put us on lockdown instead of helping students with tests,” she says. “It’s just not fair because you would expect the uni to really be helping their students but it doesn’t feel like that at all; if anything it seems we are dealing with it alone.”

Lucy does acknowledge that other university students have it worse. “The whole of the UK should be signed up to a similar system in my opinion, and I do feel bad for other universities,” she continues.

“But it shows what can happen when an institution has money.”

Serena Smith, who graduated with her master’s from Cambridge this year, says that while she isn’t surprised, she’s disappointed that testing for all is being made available at Cambridge while students at other universities are struggling to even get a test after displaying symptoms.

She says: “Cambridge has a lot of money and resources — a lot more than other universities — so it’s unsurprising that they’ve found a way to commence mass testing.” She also noted that Cambridge’s accommodation model likely makes it easier to conduct mass testing, since most first, second and final year pupils live on campus, unlike other universities where second and final year students are more likely to live in private accommodation. 

I don’t understand where they are getting these tests

Daisy Westhead, a final year student at MMU, echoes Serena’s thoughts. “I think it’s really unfair. Obviously, it’s up to each university, but I don’t understand where they are getting these tests, especially when it’s so hard for members of the public to get a test even when they have symptoms.”

In early September, it was announced that there were not enough tests to go around, so those without symptoms should refrain from getting one. The director of testing at NHS Test and Trace, Sarah-Jane Marsh, apologised for a lack of tests, saying that her team was working “18 hours, seven days a week,” to try to improve capacity.

Last month, one Yorkshire Post journalist with symptoms was forced to make a 100-mile round trip from Leeds to Bolton to access a coronavirus test, only to be turned away at the last minute as the testing centre had “reached capacity”.

“It just feels really classist,” says Daisy. 

It’s ridiculous, especially when cases up north are supposedly way more than down south

Daisy isn’t the only student who feels that way. Rachel also feels like the decision to test all Cambridge students — while northern students are holed up in halls, struggling to get food delivery slots and battling with their mental health — has a sense of classism. “Proper north-south divide,” she says. “It’s ridiculous, especially when cases up north are supposedly way more than down south.”

Anna Wightman, a student from Leeds Trinity University, also said it felt “extremely classist,” and that her university “hasn’t had anything like that,” despite having at least one positive case in one of the halls of residences.

“They basically just told them and their flat to self-isolate,” she said, almost laughing at the state of it all.

While Cambridge’s testing policy isn’t a black and white issue of class, it’s understandable northern students might feel this way. It’s general consensus that the majority of Oxbridge students are privately-educated or from the wealthiest economic groups, though some colleges were beginning to turn that around pre-coronavirus.

This year, Oxbridge universities were lauded for having majority state-educated admissions, with such admissions making up just over 60%. Still, as Marie-Ann Harvey writes in Oxford’s student newspaper, Cherwell: “Privately educated students make up only 6% of school children in the UK. If state schoolers make up 62.3% of Oxford students, then the top 6% of the most privileged students in the country make up almost 40% of UK students at the university.” 

Despite generous bursary schemes, too, it’s also widespread knowledge that Oxford and Cambridge discourage students from working part-time jobs during term time, a policy which makes even the idea of studying at Oxbridge appear inaccessible for lower-income students. 

There’s also a clear imbalance in the way Oxbridge institutions and other institutions are regarded, especially by the media. A clear cut example of this was during August’s A-Level fiasco when a biased algorithm threatened the university places of thousands of working-class students. The focus was largely on Oxbridge applicants, implying that other, less elite universities didn’t really matter.

Just this weekend, in fact, ex-principal of Hertford College at Oxford, Will Hutton, wrote an op-ed for the Guardian implying that paying £9,250 for non-Russell Group universities in their post-pandemic forms was not justifiable. “What is more,” Hutton writes, “few beyond the Russell Group go beyond online lectures to offer online seminars and tutorials, so raising questions about the justification for £9,250 tuition fees.” This claim has been widely contested as many universities of all calibres are doing face-to-face teaching and plan to continue doing so.

Cambridge University students are able to access tests without symptoms

Again, while allowing Cambridge students unconditional tests while students are locked down at northern universities might not be out-right classism, there’s always an air of elitism that comes alongside anything Oxbridge, and its unsurprising northern students feel as though they aren’t being treated fairly. 

Tresha Pereña, also studying at MMU, says that it doesn’t even make sense that Cambridge students are the one’s allowed weekly tests when northern universities have more cases. “The north,” she says, “should simply be prioritised.”

But, as Serena says, such an imbalance is perhaps to be expected, “especially when Cambridge is sitting on literally centuries of accumulated wealth”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said it was “vital staff and students only get a publicly available test if they develop coronavirus symptoms”.

“Those conducting research and providing their own tests should work in conjunction with their local Health Protection Teams, directors of public health and NHS Test and Trace.

“Universities must ensure students who need to self-isolate are safe and well looked after while working with their local Public Health England protection team in response to positive cases.”


5th October 2020