Students and staff critical of residential colleges’ response to coronavirus1 April 2020
Current and former students at the University of Melbourne’s residential colleges have expressed frustration and concern about their administrations’ handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
First-year University College (UC) student Allison Meyer said the regular departure of students from the college had triggered large, almost-daily goodbye parties and hordes of students lingering in the reception area over the last two weeks. This was despite the government-imposed ban on social gatherings, which aims to prevent the virus’s spread.
“Last week a lot of people [students] said they don’t really care,” she said. “It kind of scares me.”
Meyer was also upset that her college had organised a mandatory all-student evacuation drill on March 19 despite the college’s own requests for students to avoid large gatherings.
“Everybody had to be on the sidewalk together… I don’t think it’s safe,” she said.
University College Communications Manager Rachel Unicomb said the drill was required regardless of the coronavirus pandemic, due to the high fire risk in college accommodation. She noted the drill’s timing was designed to limit any additional interaction of students with the general public as per the government’s social distancing guidelines, which the college was attempting to “enforce vigorously.”
Meyer said she had found it hard to avoid some social activities at the college because none of her friends wanted to leave the area. “I just wanted to do something with everybody else,” she said.
Tzur Rochvarger, a University College employee – who was also a student at the college in 2018 and 2019 – agreed that peer pressure at colleges was preventing students from properly and responsibly dealing with the virus.
“When you live with someone 24/7, you constantly have to put on a face,” he said.
Rochvarger said many college students were particularly scared of being isolated or separated from their group or “clique” of friends.
An email on March 21 from University College’s Dean of Students, Elizabeth Agostino, warned students that they may be “asked to leave the college immediately” if they failed to comply with either social distancing measures or the college’s code of conduct.
“Of greatest concern currently is behaviour that puts the safety and mental health of others at risk,” Agostino’s email read.
“Ignoring the clear advice around gatherings and treating the College like a party venue is making many people nervous and upset.”
Janet Clarke Hall student and Inter-Collegiate Activities Council member Lee Perkins said there was a “general panic about what’s going to happen” amongst the colleges.
“If one person panics, then two, then four, then eight, then twelve,” he said.
Meyer said the University College administration had last week introduced extra hygiene protocols, and quarantine corridors have been set up in both University College and Trinity College. At both University College and Janet Clarke Hall, meal times have been extended and staggered in order to limit the number of students dining at the same time.
Rochvarger said that students at UC could no longer meet face-to-face with pastoral care staff and tutors.
“It’s caused a lot of panic,” Rochvarger said. “It’s really hard now to get that support… A lot of students went home.”
At University College, Meyer said she believes numbers have this week dwindled to only around forty residential students, less than a quarter of the usual college population.
“It’s like a ghost town now,” she said.
Many students left voluntarily before state and national borders closed, Unicomb said. However, some of the remaining students “wouldn’t be in a position of getting home very easily now” and “don’t have anywhere else to go at this point.”
In an email to University College residents on March 30, the administration advised students of plans to enforce the government’s Stage 3 social distancing measures. The new college rules included a ban on visitors for the next four weeks, a ban on “unapproved” social gatherings or groups of more than five people, and a ban on alcohol across the college campus.
“You are to remain on the campus at all times,” the email read, noting the exceptions the government outlined: shopping for essential supplies, medical care, work, and exercise.
As of March 27, the University of Melbourne reported that three students and four staff members had contracted coronavirus. All three of the students had recently returned from the United Kingdom and immediately self-isolated upon their return, the University’s statement said.
The University announced on Wednesday that it would be adjusting academic dates and extending the Semester One mid-semester break. It has officially advised students and staff to avoid coming to campus.
Despite the anxiety amongst the students, Perkins praised his college community’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak so far, noting that the small population of Janet Clarke Hall has made the situation easier to manage.
Similarly, Meyer said that despite the problems caused by the virus, she had enjoyed her college experience so far, and was happy with the overall culture at her residential college.
Unicomb said there are currently no plans to close University College unless the government or the University directs them to do so.
“In the event we are forced to close, we will still do our best to offer support to students,” she said.