Earlier this week, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the government would give “advance notice” if it was decided that having a complete Covid-19 vaccine would be mandatory for students to attend lectures or live in halls of residence.
The UCU, who had previously written a letter asking the government to make students a priority group for vaccination, responded and criticised the proposal as “discriminatory”.
To be clear, I believe that students do need to be allowed the chance to get both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine before travelling to campus come autumn, and that if they cannot, then resources should be mobilised to allow them to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Last year saw severe outbreaks of Covid-19 in over 40 universities, sending large proportions of students into isolation. Vaccines remain our best protection against this pandemic.
However, the UCU is right: making vaccination a mandatory condition to take part in university life would be unjust and discriminatory.
It would weigh most heavily on two groups of students who already face disadvantages in education: students with rare health conditions, and international students.
While the Covid-19 vaccine is recommended for the majority of the population, there’s a subset who are allergic to its components, sometimes severely. Students in this group aren’t choosing to avoid vaccinations, they simply cannot have them.
It would be unfair to exclude them from campus and university life if other measures can be taken to contain the spread of Covid-19.
As for international students, our university education has already been severely hit by Covid-19. Hang on, you might say, that’s the case for all students. True, but international students have been additionally impacted by measures that fail to take their circumstances into account.
They have also had to choose between their degrees and seeing their families. This is no exception.
International students simply aren’t in the same boat as home students when it comes to Covid-19.
Many would love to be vaccinated before university terms begin in September and October – after all, they face the additional risk of travelling into the UK to get to campus.
But a lot of them cannot be, because they won’t have been able to make vaccine appointments yet in their home countries.
If I was with my family in Peru this summer, for example, there is no way I could get the jab in time. That is, unless I travelled to a country like the USA and made an appointment there.
How is it fair to require that international students, who already pay twice or more to attend the same courses and live in the same halls, also incur the risks and expense of travelling to another country to get vaccinated?
Not to mention that they could very well decide that it would be unethical to do so, feeling that it would be a sort of “jumping the queue”.
Furthermore, it is a particular subset of international students who would be disadvantaged by the requirement of vaccines: those living in the Global South.
A student who lives in the USA will likely have been vaccinated well in time to come to the UK and begin their course. One who comes from Guatemala and has a place in the same course is unlikely to be able to access the vaccine in time.
Students coming from the Global South already tend to face additional challenges when studying abroad, such as language barriers, being less able to access quality education and public services, and lower average incomes.
Even if international students get to arrive in the UK and be vaccinated by the NHS, they have to wait to be fully vaccinated to attend lectures and live in halls.
As such, they would be missing out on around one whole term of university (assuming they come from an amber list country, meaning they would quarantine for ten days, need eight weeks to receive both doses, and wait for the vaccine to become fully effective).
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And not any term, but, for many, the vital first term where you meet your coursemates, lecturers, and hallmates. Virtual learning is simply not the same experience, especially if most of your peers are having in-person learning.
When requiring vaccines is not strictly necessary, seeing as taking measures such as facilitating free and regular testing, increasing ventilation in university spaces, and enforcing the wearing of face masks could be effective in curbing the spread of Covid-19 on campuses, it is unjustifiably discriminatory to do so.