Students tell us how they might navigate the hazards of uni in the age of coronavirus
Libraries shut, tutorials cancelled and freshers’ week conducted via Zoom – this is the new reality for hundreds of thousands of university students.
Why this story?
Can universities do enough to make campus safe for a new academic year and convince students they will be paying for something worth having?
In the first part of our examination of universities, we dug deep into the debts they are carrying, the income they have already lost from cancelled summer schools and a lost term, the dependence upon foreign students, the future of research. Today, we wanted to hear from students – should the current cohort return, should the new ones start their university life, and what of those who missed out on graduation? David Taylor, editor
Higher education is about study and knowledge, but also so much more than that all-important diploma. Can the (expensive) university experience be worth it, if campus life loses its joy and its power to connect?
We wanted to know what students are thinking about the prospect of a new term in the aftermath of lockdown.
Noah Gerson, 19, about to enter his first year at London School of Economics
Can you truly call yourself a fresher if you do not spend your first week at university hideously hungover, having stayed up until the early hours holding deep, meaningful conversations with new best friends who you might not be talking to come November?
That is the question facing several hundred thousand undergraduate students as they enter university life in the age of Covid-19.
“It sucks. Freshers’ week is the starting point of university, when you familiarise yourself with the surroundings. This won’t happen now,” says Noah Gershon, who takes up his place at LSE in September.
“It’s an important way to mingle, especially at such a large and diverse university. I’m living at home which is tricky – I do feel like I’m missing out, and the impact this will have on my social life.”
Like many, Noah considered deferring. The coronavirus had already cut short his gap year. “I was meant to go travelling for five months but was only able to do two. I did the saving and the working, but then had to cut short my travels.”
He is worried he will miss out on the traditional university life. “It’s very frustrating that valuable time is being lost – learning, studying, getting the whole university experience.”
Heading into second year
Alex Jay, 19, starting second year at Edge Hill University in Lancashire
Studying cybersecurity and advanced networking gives Alex one advantage over some of his contemporaries – all of his lecturers are at least technologically-aware.
But he can’t get the practical experience so crucial for his course. “We’re not getting access to hardware like robots, servers and virtual reality technology. We have leading edge technology – it’s fantastic – but you can’t learn on them unless you’re there with them.”
Group assignments conducted from a distance have understandably proved tricky. “We have access to online resources but there’s no real alternative to sitting around a table face-to-face.”
The sudden imposition of lockdown has also made for a difficult adjustment. “Socially, it’s been quite a shock to the system. It ramped up so quickly – from avoiding public spaces to full lockdown, so I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to some of my friends in the third year.”
Alex has moved back home, and being away from campus has led to some unusual working hours. “I can work at home but now that I’m not going into uni at 9am heading back at 4pm, I find myself working at odd times. Now I’m up at 1 or 2am tying up odd bits.”
A year abroad?
Maya Hoare, 20, completing her second year studying languages at University of St Andrews
Maya, studying French and Arabic, is now back at home in Coventry with her family. She is set to finish her second year, but like so many faces huge uncertainty about her future plans. Maya had been accepted on a British Council placement for her year abroad, but this now hangs in the balance.
“I’m due to move to France as a language assistant in a school next year and I’m worried about it being cancelled. And I can’t really organise anything else at the moment.”
Brexit further complicates matters, because the EU’s funding for young people to train, study and work abroad may no longer apply. “We might be the last year to get Erasmus funding and if it doesn’t go ahead I don’t know if I’d be able to do it without the funding.”
If her year abroad falls through, Maya says she’ll have to reassess her studies. “I’ll probably take a leave of absence and do my own thing. I’m paying tuition fees, have the debt, but not the same experience. I’d rather wait a year, save up some money, and do uni properly a year later.”
Ryan Thorne, 21, due to graduate next month with a degree in Geography and Management
The coronavirus means that Ryan Thorne is missing out on a big moment, both for him and his family – graduation.
“You spend a lot of your time at university dreaming about graduation. My twin brother and I are the first in my family to go to university. Graduation was supposed to be a moment for my family. I wanted them to experience it with me.”
Ryan will have his degree at St Andrews classified in June, and is on track for a 2:1. He has received a scholarship to study at Emory University in Georgia, USA, but this is now under threat. “I’m worried it might be cancelled,” he said.
In the midst of all this uncertainty, Ryan is also having to deal with spending a lot of time alone, still in St Andrews. Having grown up with six siblings, this has been immensely difficult.
“I’m not used to being in a room by myself, let alone a flat by myself. It’s been challenging spending this much time alone.”
Understandably, this has had an impact on his studies. “It’s hit my ability to stay focussed, stay motivated. I had to spend my late grandad and sister’s birthdays by myself and far from my family. It’s hard then to write a dissertation.”
Established international student
Rishika Singh, 19, was completing her first year in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies
On 14 February, Rishika got a call from her parents: they’d bought her a plane ticket, and she was booked on a flight home the next day. This followed speculation that the Indian government would shortly close its borders, even to Indian citizens.
“It was a nightmare. I was all frantic, arranging cardboard boxes, finding friends and storage facilities.”
Back home in Uttar Pradesh, Rishika misses lots of things about London.
“I miss the people more than anything. I enjoy discussion and debate, and SOAS is such a lively campus. London is such a diverse city. I’m even missing crowded tube stations. Missing the good part of London weather after living through the winter.”
Being away produces logistical challenges for international students like Rishika. “The time difference makes it difficult. I have to email at early times. Some tutorials don’t finish until 10.30pm India time.”
She would love to come back, but her return, like so much else, is pandemic-dependent.
“If online studies continue for longer than one semester, there’s a lot of expectation from my parents to transfer to an Indian university. They feel I shouldn’t be spending that amount of money for an online course.”
The new international student
Janhvi Chandra, 18, is due to move from India to start studying at University College London
For many international students like Janhvi, moving to a foreign city is about experiencing a new culture and learning to live independently. She was excited to be starting her studies in London this autumn.
“I was really looking forward to attending but it doesn’t seem probable now. I don’t know if I can even reach London in time for class.”
Social distancing and online courses change the equation.
“When you’re applying from abroad, the whole point of the experience is not sitting in a room or attending class, but getting the experience first hand from professors. Even if I manage to travel to London, and am put up in a UCL hall, I will be missing out on university life. In India we don’t live a very independent life. We have house staff, chauffeurs. But in London I would have to live independently, learn to cook, grow into a better person.”
Now, Janhvi is looking for alternatives in India. This is not without its challenges. “I hadn’t applied anywhere in India. Indian colleges have a different application system.”
Lots of deferrals lead to other issues. “A lot of students are looking to take gap years. But then next year will be even more competitive as more students apply for that cycle.”
The view from Tortoise student members
We asked our student members what is on their minds, and almost 200 replied. The biggest single concerns students have about returning to university is the lack of facilities they may face, like libraries…
But looking a little more long-term, a major concern is understandably around their employment prospects…
When asked if they would rather return for online-only courses in September or wait until spring 2021 and return in person, students were split…
Finally, nearly all students felt that if classes remain online-only, they should get a rebate on their tuition fees…
Illustration by Natsko Seki