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Staying put for Christmas

7 December 2020

In the run-up to the winter break, much has been made of students ‘going home for Christmas’. But what of students who will remain living in their accommodation over the festive season? We look at what we’re doing to support them at Unite Students.

As with so many other events this year, Christmas 2020 is shaping up to be a unique experience. Families across the UK face fraught decisions about which households to form a limited ‘Christmas bubble’ with, and students’ usual movements in December came under scrutiny like never before, with concerns around students returning to their family homes for Christmas (or indeed Hanukkah) encouraging the spread of Covid-19.

In November, the Government advised those students studying in England who planned to return home for the winter break to travel during the student ‘travel window’ from 3rd to 9th December. The guidance was that this makes the most of reduced infection rates – and therefore, lowered risk of transmission – following England’s 4-week lockdown. To facilitate this, universities were encouraged to move all teaching online by 9th December, and the government worked with universities to implement mass testing on campuses, providing reassurance to those concerned about being asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

However, for those with vulnerable family members, returning to a family home may remain an uncomfortable proposition, and some international students may be unable to return home without spending lengthy and expensive periods in quarantine – so we may expect to see more students remaining in their accommodation over the winter break. As a result, there has been a greater focus on the provision of accommodation and university services available at this time, but this provision is nothing new; there has always been a contingent of students staying in their accommodation over the winter break.

The reasons for this are as diverse as the student population itself. There are those who won’t be celebrating for cultural or religious reasons, and those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to be around family. For some students, their student accommodation is their home – whether through choice or necessity – for whom the narrative of ‘going home’ is othering. While this may include care experienced and estranged students, it is important not to generalise that this is the case for all students with this background, who may have foster families, friends, or partners’ homes in which to spend the holiday season.

There may be a temptation to view these students as being ‘left behind’ for Christmas but, in reality, each student in this position will feel differently about their circumstances. Some may feel sadness, and this may be the case for those remaining because of specific reasons pertaining to Covid-19. But for some, there is liberation in remaining in accommodation. Each circumstance is so personal to the individual that, no matter how well-intentioned, sweeping statements on the topic will ring hollow for many of the students they claim to represent – so it’s important to take an inclusive approach.

Five charities specialising in supporting care leavers and estranged students and communities – the Unite Foundation, Become, Stand Alone, Spectra, and NNECL – have co-authored an open letter to Vice Chancellors to make three recommendations for how universities can support the wider cohort of students who stay in their accommodation over the winter break. These recommendations are:

  1. To provide clear and inclusive communication to students on university services, tuition and testing throughout December and into the New Year, and establish which students are remaining so that they can receive targeted provision;
  2. To keep student services – including specialist support services – open unless there are clear safety reasons for closure, and ensure opportunities are available for students to socialise either virtually or in person; and
  3. To ensure sufficient staffing for proactive engagement with students, and consider how students might be able to get involved in services and community provision.

Here at Unite Students, we provide a home for our students all year long. As in any other year, our properties will remain open and staffed over the festive period, including on Christmas Day. We’re working with our university partners to understand what they’re offering during the holidays so that we can communicate this with our students, and keep them informed about what services they can access on campus and when; Each city will have slightly different arrangements, depending on what tier it is in.

Additionally, a central email communication is going out to all students, asking them to tell us if they are planning to stay in their flat over the break. This will include information on testing, how to prepare for isolation if necessary, and the need to tell us if they have had a positive Covid test result.

Remainer students will have a range of virtual events to attend, run by our staff with help from Student Ambassadors who are staying in our buildings over the break. Information about these will be available on our student-facing blog, The Common Room, alongside student-led articles suggesting practical wellbeing tips and advice.

For potentially vulnerable student populations, there will be welfare arrangements in place in each city. We know how important it is that contact is maintained throughout the holidays; the Unite Foundation’s ‘Positive Impact?‘ report from February quotes a care-experienced student who noted the importance of checking in: “I would be [in student accommodation] for 52 weeks pretty much, so the key contact would check up on me whenever and invite me in for a brew… I know it’s only little stuff, but it means a lot.”

We also believe that good employee wellbeing helps our students. In common with the sector as a whole, our employees have worked incredibly hard this year to support our student population, whether that’s being there for their wellbeing needs, or providing practical help to self-isolating students. We are encouraging employees to take their holiday for 2020 so that they can relax and recharge their batteries, returning fresh for the staggered Q1 return to campus; additional security will be on-hand, where needed, to maintain students safety over the Christmas period.

This festive season will be unique, as many of us weigh up health risks against worries about excluding people from our celebrations – and that discomfort with exclusion should illustrate how remainer students can be made to feel when we exclude them through clumsy, generalised messages about ‘going home’ and narratives of being ‘left behind’. Christmas may return to ‘normal’ next year, but an inclusive and considered approach to the winter break must stay in place even when masks and social distancing are a thing of the past.

Read here about students’ experiences of living in their accommodation during Christmas and the January 2021 lockdown.