Apparently, I am a university student. I haven’t had any in person learning since March. I was planning to return to a vastly different experience this month with all lectures online but at least the tutorials in person. Now even that has changed. My head is all over the place because the university experience I strived for my whole school life has completely changed and no one knows what lies ahead. How can I even begin to know what to do? I am a typical university student in the year of the pandemic.
Flashback to March 2020. Universities send students home and move teaching online. You can listen to a lecture at your convenience, but there is little inspiration from the interaction between lecturer and students. Some courses didn’t even continue because departments failed to provide alternatives to planned group projects. Some students preferred learning online, most didn’t. We all understood the difficult situation that universities, like the rest of society, had been thrust into.
I’m supposed to be returning in less than 2 weeks. Although uneasy at the thought of a world without lectures and vastly reduced social interaction, the promise of in person tutorials and some in person society and accommodation-led events, slowly persuaded me that it was worth returning to salvage some learning and renew short lived friendships from my first year. On August 28th the university chancellor wrote to reassure us regarding the risks around COVID-19 and to confirm that wherever possible, face to face tutorials would continue, recognising their importance for mental health. Only 3 days later, on August 31st, I received an email cancelling the majority of in person teaching until at least week 7, and I suspect far beyond, to move all provision online.
Whether this is due to fear among tutors or too many A-level students arriving to cope with is unclear. But the result is the same: no in person lectures or tutorials, no society events, limited socialising, limited access to facilities. Worse still, should anyone in my bubble display symptoms, I’ll be confined to my flat for 2 weeks with no fresh air or exercise. This all leaves me asking one fundamental question: what is the point? From both a mental health perspective and the practical cost implications, I have serious concerns.
Universities are allegedly motivated to take these tough decisions on teaching through their selfless desire for student safety in the face of COVID-19, but the facts don’t add up. If it’s deemed not safe enough to hold any in person classes or social events, how can it be safe enough for students to share accommodation and live in close proximity with hundreds of other kids? Why aren’t we being told to stay at home and work remotely until at least Christmas or when the crisis is over? It seems that the bank accounts of the universities, empty after the boom years and endless investment, are running short of cash. None of them bothered to save for the rainy day and accommodation fees are crucial to their continued survival.
But what is the real cost to students? The financial implications of being forced to pay for university accommodation are obvious – anywhere between £5,000 and £10,000 a year dependent on the facilities. But it is our mental health and wellbeing where the potential cost is catastrophic. Confined to accommodation with only flatmates for company, flatmates who we barely know thanks to COVID curtailing our first year, leaves social interaction strictly limited, so no uni bars, no student union, no parties. With travel restrictions and risks making it difficult to visit family, university will be an isolating experience. For first year students in a new place with likely no existing friends, the reality is grim. For students from the Isle of Man specifically, many parents will be unable to take their children to university or visit because of the 14-day quarantine on their return. Students won’t want to come home to be confined for 14 days of perhaps a 3-week holiday.
There is no panacea, but universities should not be allowed to bring back students to remedy their financial deficit. The impact on the mental health and development of this generation will be another tragedy of COVID-19. If there really is no way to run in person lectures or tutorials then let students stay at home if they choose, where they are probably safer and have a support network of family and friends in place. Keep them informed and treat them with respect; this news came far too late for many students to change plans – is this a coincidence or clever timing on the part of universities? With significant numbers of overseas students already back at university and self-isolating, pressure is high to not abandon them to an even more lonely existence.
With little notice, I must now decide whether to return on the 12th to my university or whether to try desperately to negotiate my way out of my accommodation contract and stay at home. I’m sure the university will ‘encourage’ my return. I have no doubt that over the coming weeks, thousands of other students will be placed in a similar position as universities across the UK backtrack on empty promises. Do not feel pressured. Take a deep breath, weigh up your options, involve family and friends to reach a decision. You must look past the next few weeks to next year and beyond and how your course and learning experience will be affected. I have no answers for you. I’m still struggling to know what I should do.
While we have your attention, a group of young people, aware of the mental health challenges people are increasingly facing, came together to record Let’s Talk: A Charity Album to reach out to others and raise some money for Mind, a charity which seeks to support and empower those struggling with their mental health. Please consider listening and donating here. Check out their Facebook page for more information.