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Our colleges are the University's COVID saviours

The unique collegiate York system will prove essential in supporting mental health in future months

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A good friend of mine has recently started in her first year at a fairly prestigious UK university. She’s a fresher who didn’t really know what to expect out of higher education, and spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. What she told me about her arrival process highlighted a shocking contrast with the way we do things here. After she got her A-level results, there were one or two emails from the University (staff, not students) about the arrivals process, but nothing too personally engaging. When she arrived in September, there was no one greeting her as she left her car, no one helping her move in, Covid rules weren’t enforced properly and gatherings of hundreds of students with no social distancing were commonplace. Unsurprisingly, she has now been locked down in her block as a number of her flatmates have tested positive, with little to no support offered to those isolating. Not so here.

At York, from the moment students get their accommodation, freshers are sent emails by College staff on how to access support, and are bombarded with chances to ask real students questions via Instagram Q&As, email and Facebook. In normal times, from their arrival to the end of Freshers Week, that same team of College staff and students move them in, guide them through their (student-run) Freshers Week and are on hand 24/7 to provide support to that struggling to adapt to university life. This is an organic and deeply student-focused way of greeting people into our community, and from the conversations I’ve had is second to none with other British universities.

But, obviously, we are not in normal times. Covid has turned the world on its head, and Colleges have adapted to these new times with confidence. Broadly, College Committees have done an excellent job over the summer, constantly changing their plans to keep up with government advice to pull off what has been a stunning success with their respective Welcome Weeks. That so many events have been able to take place and, at least during Freshers, York has been able to avoid the kind of mass outbreaks seen in Manchester Met and Glasgow is a testament to the hundreds of hours of hard work put in. Crucially, this success was by no means guaranteed. For the first time since 1966, the University invested significantly into College Committees over the summer allowing them to put on Covid-secure high-quality events. College Committee funding has been a perennial issue for staff and students; York should commit to investing again in the Academic Year 202 Freshers Week if they are serious about guaranteeing a good level of student experience for incoming students.

Colleges have for a long time been the pillars of student mental health and wellbeing, and in the pandemic they are coming into their own; daily calls to students who are self isolating, meals delivered to their door, even specific events for those in lockdown such as virtual coffee mornings. The reality of lockdowns at other universities have been bleak. Students “locked up” in their halls of residence. Post-it notes on the windows crying for help. Security guards patrolling their blocks to keep them in. Lured back to University, they’ve paid their rent and are now not even able to get food or other essentials. This is how we treat criminals, not students. As we move into winter and the probability of further restrictions on our
lives’ increases, the type of local, decentralised community services colleges offer will become even more vital in the battle to prevent this viral pandemic from turning into a mental health crisis. The personal nature of college leadership should mean that buy-in from students is greater if they are asked to isolate. From a student welfare point of view; Colleges have to be seen as absolutely vital and central to the university’s Covid strategy.

More widely, the University has a number of other services that include a ‘swab squad’ bringing tests to students' doors' and an on-campus testing site. This is a huge achievement by an organisation often accused of not being nimble enough in a crisis (see UCU strikes of the last few years). While communication over the summer could have been better from the University, the national picture was changing so constantly I am glad management didn’t make a definitive statement on how the Academic Year 2020 would look early on (see Cambridge’s ‘everything will be online’ debacle in March). Since the start of the term, the Vice-Chancellor’s consistent emails have helped stress an image of competence and have reassured many students that their health is the top priority for him. The University feels responsive to the pandemic and accessible to students’ concerns in a way it never really has done before. So as the Covid scythe continues to cut remorselessly through university budgets, it is vital that Colleges are protected from the cuts to come. We hear never-ending talk of the student mental health crisis, undoubtedly an important subject, but if the university wants to really prevent it from spiralling into an all-consuming imbroglio, it has to keep funding colleges properly. If they don't; jobs, crucial student experience, and most importantly, our mental health, are on the line

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