Why do students travel to university? Covid has proved they don’t need to | Simon Jenkins

Who ever thought it a good idea to disperse 2 million Covid super-spreaders across British cities this month? One hundred and twenty-four returning Glasgow students have already tested positive, with dozens more at Aberdeen, St Andrews and elsewhere. Six hundred are now confined to their Glasgow lodgings and told they may have to stay there through Christmas. Now this fiasco is to be repeated in England as freshers’ week gets under way there too.

At the same time as this mass return to campus, the Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon is banning most households from meeting even their next-door neighbours, the most severe curb of personal freedom in this phase of the pandemic so far. Yet teenagers who have won the privilege of a university place have also won the privilege of travelling as far as they choose from home and meeting thousands of new friends. This might be called a giant exercise in herd immunity, a national version of what used to be a children’s chickenpox party. Is this now policy?

When Johnson introduced the “rule of six” in England last week, schools and universities were excluded. Schools needed to stay open to allow parents to return to work, and schoolchildren are largely less affected by the virus, and by definition local. Students are not local. The tradition – and expense – of a residential university education dates from days when they were elite institutions catering for under 10% of young people. The remainder of post-school students went to local technical colleges. Today roughly half of England’s youngpeople go to university, with about 80% of UK undergraduates leaving home to live elsewhere.

The reason for such generosity to universities had nothing to do with scientific evidence. Such “evidence” has all but disappeared from British political discourse. The reason is politics. Students have votes, and universities have influence. Queen’s University Belfast has even chartered planes to ferry Chinese students to Belfast. More than 24,000 Chinese students applied to British universities this summer, and acceptances are up 14%. To hard-pressed universities, overseas students are gold. There is no way those planes are turning back. But imagine the government aiding the travel industry by flying in thousands of tourists, from China or anywhere else.

We know a university education is about more than teaching. It is about the “rite of passage” of graduates through the groves of academe, a rite inherited from the monastic tradition of a residential university. But we are supposed to be in an emergency. If lockdown can allow hundreds of thousands of clever young people at least some of the delights and promiscuities of freshers’ week, what about their school-leaver contemporaries embarking on work or training, but told they must do so from home, while observing social distancing and avoiding unnecessary contact?

I sense that here, as in so many walks of life, coronavirus is moving mountains. Commuting students living at home have been widely seen as inhibited, denied the socialising benefits of life on campus. Not everyone thinks that way. Manchester’s professor of higher education, Steven Jones, wrote recently that he found his “stay-at-home” students, if anything, more in touch with the world. They linked university with family and community, and were “invariably an asset, bringing important alternative perspectives and enlivening academic discussions”.

No less significant is what the pandemic has done to teaching technology. Education must be the most conservative discipline on earth, rooted in “what was good enough for us is good enough for them”. Universities still live in a pre-digital world of three or four-year residential courses, leisurely holidays and medieval calendars and costumes. Parkinson’s Law reigns, with study expanding to fill the years allotted to its completion.

Yet in just six months of the pandemic, universities have seen more innovation than in a century. Lectures and classes have gone online. At the London School of Economics, teachers have converted lectures into videos with library clips, inserts and YouTube interviews. Lecturers have had to become theatrical performers visible to their colleagues. Zoom classes and other devices promote feedback. Prospective students can see “trailers” of courses they may or may not want to attend.

In other words, students – pandemic or not – will become digital commuters, much as will many office workers. Where they live will not matter, at least not all the time. The LSE can link its classes to 25 different locations worldwide, even adjusted to time zones. This can only transform the concept of the exclusive campus. It becomes a cross between a television studio and a wifi-enabled pub: Ye Olde Rite of Passage, perhaps open to students of all ages. Physical campuses will not be unimportant – education is also about human contact and new friends in new places – but they will be dynamic and different. Born of coronavirus out of the digital age, a new university will dawn.

o Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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