Why I want to get back to university

For once, silence overcame my university WhatsApp group chat on Monday evening as we watched the Prime Minister’s latest lockdown announcement.

Boris Johnson revealed guidance for primary schools, secondary schools and colleges… and then said absolutely nothing about universities.

As an English Literature student living in London but studying 450 miles away at Edinburgh University, I felt a wave of anxiety that I hadn’t experienced since A-Level results day.

Blurry guidance later appeared online, instructing students in some courses that have face-to-face teaching – such as in medicine, veterinary science and social work – to return as planned. Everyone else should ‘remain where they are wherever possible’ and continue with online learning, at least until mid-February.

Although I would feel guilty going against the guidance, I feel a strong urge to return to campus.

If I stay at home, I know that my mental health and motivation will suffer, I fear I will not be able to meet the academic expectations that the university has of me, and I’ll be wasting so much money on fees and empty accommodation that I’m worried I’ll grow to resent my course and university in general.

When the lockdown was first introduced in March last year – having already had weeks of disrupted learning due to lecturer strikes – we all immediately returned home, most of us naively believing that we’d be back to normal well before September.

During the summer, I was sold a ‘hybrid’ approach to learning by my university, with a mix of on-campus and online teaching. Following this, at the start of last term I moved into a new flat in Edinburgh at a cost of over £500 a month.

I went on to receive two hours a week on Zoom, with recorded lectures and online discussion boards replacing contact hours.

We’ve had almost everything that makes university the coveted ‘best years of your life’ stripped away – bars and nightclubs are shuttered, while societies and sporting activities are severely restricted.

These extra-curricular activities are often just as important as degrees themselves. I’m also trying to build a career in broadcasting and chose Edinburgh University partly for their excellent student radio station, but I haven’t been able to access the studios since March.

Despite all of this, it turns out that living in Edinburgh over the past couple of months is the only way I’ve managed to retain some semblance of a normal university experience.  

On the academic side, I’m able to access the library, not only to find resources, but more importantly as a space other than my bedroom to study. This is vital considering that all my exams have been replaced with coursework.

In fact, just before Christmas, the hottest ticket in Edinburgh was for a socially distanced library seat. Seriously, you had to book days in advance.

But there’s also a sense of stoicism fostered by being around students in the same situation, even if we’re not allowed to meet or attend lectures. Trying to meet heavy deadlines (last month I had four essays totalling 9,000 words due within the space a week) is undoubtedly easier when the people around you are in the same situation.

In particular, my flatmates were saviours in terms of my own mental health – we laughed and cried together, often at the sheer absurdity of the situation. This was so important.  

If we’re expected to put up with such a reduced quality of teaching, and experience in general, without any rebate in fees, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to get the most out of the scrapings of a university experience we have left – for example, the independence and life lessons that living away from home provides.

There are also practical reasons why studying from home would be difficult – I left most of my books and notes in Edinburgh, as well as many of my personal belongings. I wouldn’t have done this had the advice been clearer before we left.

Combine all of this with the sickeningly unfair prospect of spending thousands of pounds on an empty flat, and I think I make a pretty strong case for returning.

I adore my family, and Christmas has been lovely, but now the festivities are over my siblings will return either to online school or work, as will my parents. I on the other hand face the prospect of sitting in my room, isolated from university, save for two hours per week. That prospect fills me with dread.

And I’m not alone in this worry – straight after Johnson’s announcement, I received pictures of friends in tears. It seems that, just like mask-wearing and social distancing, unstable student mental health is also the ‘new normal’.

What is perhaps even more damaging is the idea that students on campuses are the ones responsible for spreading the virus. It feels as if we are all blamed and shamed for the inconsiderate actions of a very small minority.

I’m appalled at the illegal raves shown in the news, and it is particularly frustrating considering that the majority of my friends and I spent our 21st birthdays this year away from our families and confined to our flats. 

We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve been incredibly cautious and sensible. All of my friends downloaded Scotland’s contact-tracing app the day it became available, and, like many, I shut myself in my room for over a week when I got a text telling me to isolate. Many of us also took advantage of Edinburgh’s asymptomatic testing system, as we had planned to do on our return.

However, our patience is wearing thin. If the prime minister wants students to pay any attention to his message to stay at home, this must be a two-way conversation.

It seems to me that by telling us to stay home ‘wherever possible’, the Government is placing the burden on us to do the right thing, without the support that doing so should entail.

The Government must engage with students openly about refunds, help with rent, the state of our mental health, no-detriment policies for grades, and our prospects for the future.

According to graduate advice website Prospects, almost two-thirds of final year students now feel negative about their future careers, and I certainly feel the same way.  

Although Johnson responded to a question during Tuesday’s press briefing from a concerned mother with a vague promise to ‘look at’ student issues, I don’t see this discussion happening before the train I’ve speculatively booked back to Edinburgh departs next week.

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