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Forgotten, Maligned And Ignored: University Students Grapple With A New Reality

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COVID restrictions have transformed university life and set off a student revolt.

As an academic year unlike any other rolls on university students are caught in a crossfire between underprepared universities and contradictory government guidelines. The third lockdown in the space of a year alongside the cancellation of summer exams yet again are just the latest in a long line of U-turns that students have to have define them for the rest of their lives. I spoke to Rashid at Cardiff university who told me just how jarring it has all been. 

The government alongside all others across the world was caught out by the pandemic. They could therefore be forgiven for missteps in the previous academic year. However, when problems were still quite evident for the start of the following academic year, it began to look a lot more like incompetence rather than unpreparedness. Rashid found himself at the end of September having to attend his university in the autumn with the coincidence of the government policy of the ‘rule of six’. This policy aimed to limit the number of individuals in social gatherings to six. 

This advice, however, did not extend to work or education settings. This meant Rashid had to attend classrooms filled with however many students, as long as they socially distance by at least 1 meter, but as soon as he left the lecture hall those same students were confined to their households or groups of 6.  The impact on his social life was immense. As someone who lived and breathed football, this meant he couldn’t even organise 5 a side football match with friends without receiving a steep £200 fine.

University students also found themselves comically absent from almost all press conferences held by the Prime minster, Cabinet ministers or health officials. Rashid joked that Boris must be allergic to even mentioning them. The national lockdown announcement on January 4th didn’t even bother to mention university students leaving them to find out their fate from government guidance they found online. This did little to help the university students who had already made their way to universities for the spring term only to have to travel back home. 

When outbreaks happened, universities were left in the dark. The University of Glasgow was forced to deal with numerous outbreaks within the student body with 600 students being instructed to self-isolate for the NHS mandated two-week period. Universities often reacted by simply refusing to allow students to leave their accommodation. Some like the university of Manchester erected security fences were erected around students’ halls of residence, which were promptly torn down by students. 

Rashid has also told me about how as a Manchester resident he has had to fork out thousands to landlords to secure accommodation in Cardiff, a decision he is regretting. Accusations are being made across universities that they have downplayed how much university life would be impacted by Coronavirus in order to fill student accommodations. Strict bans are being enforced by universities on parties and social venues have been instructed to shutter by the government past 10 pm. This has not stopped some students. A 200-student party was broken up at Coventry University in defiance of social distancing and university policy

Rashid also explained to me about an apathy that has begun to develop among University students towards their studies. The lack of consistency whether it be exams, lessons or face time with other students and teachers have led students to being unable to meaningfully plan ahead. The knock-on effect this has had is students are falling behind on university work. Some universities are finding increased dropout rates across universities. Particularly, hard-hit are first-years who have no experience of normal university life and are having to adapt to online learning often having never seen their teachers in the classroom. Rashid himself, an A* student at A-level, is finding it particularly hard to adapt. He enjoyed classroom lessons finding that being in the room energized him to push further. Now, a zoom screen only brings on feelings of dread.  

Being cooped up in student flats, and for many students away from family and friends for the first time in their lives, has had a hugely detrimental impact. Reports of stress, anxiety and depression are rampant, and support is nowhere to be found.

Students are also finding it difficult to find opportunities to discover the workplace through internships or work experience, Rashid included. He has been applying for work experience to do as part of his sandwich year before beginning his final year when the coronavirus hit the UK. All of a sudden, all those applications he had meticulously prepared and sent off began returning as rejections. Fortunately, he managed to find a position with a legal charity where he will begin in September. However, for many of his classmates they can’t say the same. 

Some students are already starting to fight back against the injustice they say has been done to them. Rashid has joined hundreds of students across the Welsh universities Cardiff, Bangor and Swansea to go on a rent strike against student landlords stating that they shouldn’t be forced to pay for rooms they barely used. Others are calling for all fees to be scrapped due to how little they have benefitted from the lectures and facilities their fees contribute to. A petition on Parliament’s website calling for reimbursement for all tuition fees has reached 565,025 signatures (at the time of writing) surpassing the 100,00 necessary for debate.  

Some university students hope that with the vaccine things will soon be back to normal. However, with students at the bottom of the priority list, normal still looks a long way away. Rashid doesn’t know what the future holds but he has nevertheless been severely affected by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. He hopes that things soon stabilise, and that job market picks up before he has to enter it. 

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