Only after I signed the lease on my house for my final year at university was I told that, this year, all my seminars will be online. As well as all my lectures. Which when you throw in the new ‘Rule of Six’, puts a bit of a downer on clubs and societies and the rest of campus life (online registration for the student newspaper saw just 16 people sign-up, compared to 200 last year). Our library visits have been rationed – when trying to book a seat in the library I discovered that currently there are around 200 seats across all of the university’s libraries, which is about one seat per 190 students (there goes the idea that university is an expensive library membership) – and even digitised lecture hours are being shortened. The tuition fee is the same: £9,250 a year, and almost the same again in living costs. So we’re paying for rooms away from home, just streets down from friends that we can’t see and a short walk from a university we won’t be going near. Oh, and it wasn’t until everyone moved to university that we were told we could get trapped over Christmas – super noodles for Christmas dinner anyone?
I went for a stroll around my university’s campus during freshers week. Only two years ago, I was on the same packed campus for the first time, meeting people from across the country, international students from Amsterdam and South Korea, hugging, checking out each other’s rooms, going to a sweaty club to dance to ABBA until 4 in the morning.
Now there are about 15 people in the main campus area where there used to be poster stalls and free pizzas, the DJ from the student radio is blasting music – but there is barely anyone here to listen (even if they had wanted to) – students are placed in a bubble of their flats, keeping two metres from anyone else and definitely not dancing the night away in a sweaty club.
Most are doing their best to follow the rules. You have to wear a face covering whenever you’re inside any communal space on my university campus, even though most workplaces aren’t this stringent – the only way you can meet people in shared areas, still distanced, without a mask, is outside. But university staff are now taking this even further, threatening to remove outside benches to stop distanced social gatherings, purely out of fear. Rather than continually resorting to apocalyptic measures, like stopping in-person teaching and both barring us from going on to campus and from leaving our accommodation, perhaps universities and the government should stop treating students like inmates and start seeing them as human beings; remind them that the rules are all about helping others.
We’ll still get our degrees from studying online, but having a degree isn’t the same as having the university experience. Studying involves bouncing ideas off people, taking inspiration from others, finding in a club or society your vocation. Not being isolated. Any of us could get an online degree from the Open University. Schools are back, even my grandma’s adult education classes, large groups of over-70s, are back to studying about Josephus in-person. But universities seem incapable of organising face-to-face teaching for a group of paying 20- year-olds who have already moved for their studies, saying they just can’t.
Can’t – or won’t? The head of the University and College Union (UCU), Jo Grady, claimed that universities risk becoming ‘care homes of the second wave’ with students heading back to campus, and that we risk ‘doing untold damage to people’s health’. The difference in mortality rates, however, between the elderly and the young is remarkable: the former are 10,000 times more likely to die of the virus according to the statistician David Spiegelhalter.
And yet, humanities students are getting zero face-to-face teaching. Engineering students get no labs. Even chemistry students are only having lab work once every other week. The value of the university experience appears to have been forgotten by universities themselves – who have a captive audience. After all, where are young people going to go? The imploding jobs market? Foreign travel? There aren’t many other options.
The Prime Minister in his recent update to the House of Commons, announcing a curfew for pubs and restaurants – which is more likely to drive young people away from officially enforced distancing and into student houses late in the evening – maintained that universities were open.
Ministerial guidance also says that in-person teaching should only be abandoned as a ‘last resort’, but the UCU (or UCU-seless, as my friends have taken to calling it) have been demanding online-only learning until January. That appears to be what all too many of students are getting. The guidance for universities even recommends attempting to keep students in face-to-face teaching during a local lockdown – never mind moving it online because university management is erring on the side of caution.
However lacklustre universities approaches may appear to be, the government didn’t exactly set a good example by releasing this guidance at 1:18am – like all good students in a fit of panic – just a few weeks before universities re-open. The government fought to get children back into the classroom and to support businesses – here we have a case of both education and business, but little government effort. Instead of helping get students back into seminars, health minister Lord Bethell has warned us not to spread coronavirus ‘in the bedroom’. We don’t know if we will get to see anyone away from a computer screen during the day, but at least students now know not to have sex, although the atmosphere in some student houses might get a bit awkward if needs must. Sex seems to now be reserved for couples in ‘established relationships’ – I'm sure a number of these relationships will inevitably establish rather quickly.
This leaves students stuck in a small, cramped university room all day on Zoom seminars, with poor internet, not meeting any new people – likely leading to a new mental health crisis. If you’ve learnt anything from the England football team (and don’t let it be their poor creativity midfield) it’s that people in their late teens and early twenties will want to get to know new people a little better. If ministers don’t want people to go out in the evening, don’t trap them in tiny rooms online for the day – this goes for over Christmas, too.
It would make much more sense for universities to keep learning and a social life on campus so that young people stay together, away from the wider population of university towns. But without any reason to be on campus, student bars remain empty while the Wetherspoons in the city centre has a queue around the block. Student unions could place hand sanitiser alongside your pints and monitor distancing, but instead universities are overwhelming students and deterring them away from campus. Universities aren’t prisons. We didn’t move to then be told to stay in our rooms as much as possible, like students were asked to in St Andrews, even before any official government regulations.
Educational institutions are exempt from the Rule of Six – so there is no law stopping the in-person teaching being denied to so many of us. But the restrictions will still apply to ‘private gatherings’ among students, so we can’t do anything for ourselves. That’s us, then, settling down for the year – cooped up in small rooms watching the world’s most expensive pay-per-view TV. We can’t blame the virus, just universities who know they can get away with it and a government who think they can place the blame on us.