These are difficult times, unprecedent times. I’m sure that as little as a week ago few of us would have imagined that we would be where we are today. The streets are emptying, more and more of us are self-isolating, borders across Europe are closing, Italy is under lock-down, the number of those infected is rapidly increasing. Who could have predicted this? I didn’t, and Oxford University certainly did not.
At such a surreal moment in our lives many of us are unsure what to do and where to turn. Just look at the empty shelves in Tesco, the panic hoarding is getting worse by the day. It has not been helped by the confusing, mixed, and at times isolating responses of the Oxford colleges.
Last week St John’s College had assured its students that they would be able to remain in their accommodation if need be and were prepared to support them throughout this troubling period. On Sunday afternoon, in an email from the Senior Tutor, the college rescinded its former position: ‘I am now requiring you to leave to go home unless there is a pressing reason not to do so.’ According to the Senior Tutor’s email, all UK students, barring special exceptions, should return home by Wednesday 18thof March.
This came as a shock to many of the students of St John’s, and has created further distress and anxiety at an already trying time. Students have contacted the college individually disputing the decision and expressing their own individual concerns and fears. Furthermore, a letter drafted by a postgraduate student, signed by 60 undergraduate and postgraduate students, was sent to the college expressing opposition to the decision to instruct students to leave. The letter details the concerns shared by many students about endangering elderly and vulnerable relatives at home, as well as their confusion as to how the college decision is intended to fit with the government’s current plan of action.
While St John’s has told postgraduate students that they understand that they might not want to return home because of elderly parents, the college told its undergraduate students via email: ‘you are the very people they [elderly relatives] may need and this is another reason why you must return to your local community.’
One student at Johns has said that they are ‘honestly distraught’ by the college’s handling of the situation, and feel as if they are being forced to endanger the welfare of their family, their mental health, and their degree by being forced to vacate their room at short notice.
Another student of the college has said that they feel as if the ‘boilerplate copy-and-paste messages’ from college have made students ‘feel angry, anxious, and condescended to.’
St John’s has not been alone in encouraging or forcing students to leave. Queen’s College has advised that all students who are able to return home should do so. Likewise, Wadham College has asked all UK students to leave college accommodation unless they have a ‘compelling’ reason to stay. University College have also requested that all UK students should leave if they do not have a ‘compelling’ reason to stay.
The issue is, what does ‘compelling’ really mean? Compelling for the student or for the college? Many students at St John’s felt that they had compelling reasons to stay in Oxford, but their objections were widely met with a generic copy-and-paste email, ignoring the differing situations of individuals.
In times of crisis cracks start to show. There are many students who come to Oxford in the first year of their degree and began to make a home for themselves here. Not everyone has a safe home to go to. Many have relatives that they risk endangering by returning. Not everyone has a home conducive to the work demanded by an Oxford degree. What the last week has shown is that many colleges are only prepared to be a home to its students when it is clear skies and smooth sailing.
Now that students are being forced to leave many of us are feeling lost and frankly abandoned by the institution which we have dedicated ourselves to, the institution we depended on. For some, this experience may well have ruined a relationship with the university that has been built over several years.
Undoubtedly the college staff are under an extreme amount of pressure, and I am sure that the decisions made by colleges have not been made lightly. But given the sheer surreal nature of reality right now it is of the utmost importance that we treat each other gently, and kindly, and with understanding. St John’s may well have good reasons for forcing its students to leave but those reasons have been poorly communicated. The college has told its postgraduates one thing, and its undergraduates another. It has failed to respond to the individual concerns of students, and it has failed to make its students feel safe.
I sincerely hope that when Johns students return to the college that their relationship with the college will be able to be salvaged, for those who may never return to the college I can only hope that this has not tainted their memories of their degree and their time at St Johns.
St John’s College decline to comment.