It’s supposed to be the most liberating experience of your life. The freedom, the social life, the chance to start afresh. Yet for generation COVID, everything is different — though nothing has changed.
So how is it different? Like many teenagers settling into their courses, I feel as if I’m at university in name only. With Zoom lectures becoming the furthest we’re allowed out of our rooms, strained and isolated students are preparing for a fresh round of restrictions that could even see a whole age group penned in, and kept away from families over Christmas.
Pretending the lives of students will only be temporarily disrupted is to hide the inevitability that it’s the young who will shoulder the financial burden of coronavirus as we step out of sheltered sanctity and into the workforce. Already, the Resolution Foundation has predicted 600,000 jobs for 18-24-year-olds will cease to exist, saturating further a jobs market that is already fiercely competitive.
In Scotland, where Glasgow University has ordered 600 students to self-isolate, St Andrews has imposed a 7pm ‘voluntary’ lockdown and Aberdeen has ordered 72 students into isolation, Nicola Sturgeon’s government has intervened to threaten students with expulsion if they dare step into a hospitality venue this weekend. Compounding the misery and loneliness of teenagers with extra restrictive measures — enforced solely through fear of capture and expulsion and never used before on a specific age group — feels like a cheap shot at a generation that has already suffered enough.
In the absence of government restrictions, institutions themselves have stepped in to fill the lockdown void. At Manchester Metropolitan University, which ordered 1700 students to isolate, private security firms have been hired to blockade halls of residences, preventing resident students from leaving their rooms. In protest, one cunning household spelt out ‘HMP MMU’ entirely in post-it notes, but a leaked email from student housing company Student Living reveals that the accommodation owners have commanded students to remove signs, telling the locked-in youths to ‘take it down asap’.
How Boris stole Christmas
Throwing another match into the fiery maelstrom of uncertainty, speculation is mounting over whether students could be barred from returning home over the winter break; a move that would mean missing Christmas with their families and what one student told me would ‘break them’. With outings limited and campus trips sparse, the majority of students have been left confined to their rooms, attempting in vein to rationalise answers to questions we should never have needed to ask, such as: ‘How at risk am I?’, ‘Will I run out of food if I have to isolate?’, and, painfully, ‘When will I see my family again?’
For the Covid intake, the natural attraction of university has already worn off. The allure of meeting new people ended on day one, when I’d already met everyone I was contractually allowed to. The excitement that comes with moving to a new city has been diminished by the depressing reality that many high street fixtures are yet to return, instead replaced by a solemn, despairing sigh at the concert halls we might never fill, or the shop where someone’s passion became their business — and then their undoing.
Failing finances and mental health
An even more brutal reality is that thousands of students depend on part-time jobs in the tertiary sector to prop up their student loans. Without these jobs for cash-strapped students to fill, the crisis intensifies into a pandemic-shaped demonic triad: financial struggle, academic struggle and a mental struggle will be the hallmarks of a year group that has been failed twice in as many months, with disadvantaged students hit hardest once again.
And if it is mental support that’s required, that appears to have been stockpiled too. Exeter University has pulled the plug on many of its mental health services at the time they’re needed most, suspending all face-to-face student support, with one student representative telling me: ‘the University has thrown our mental health to the wolves just as it has become most essential’.
Perhaps the most dangerous question of all that faces freshers is ‘what’s the point?’ What’s the point of travelling hundreds of miles to learn through a Zoom call? Why should we bother reaching out or making new friends if socialising is virtually illegal? Why sign up for societies if they simply never meet?
Williamson & Hancock backlash
There’s yet to be a coherent answer for the aim of higher education this year from anywhere, least of all the already crestfallen Gavin Williamson, who in the eyes of many young people should have been ‘sent down’ from the cabinet for his role in the A Level grading fiasco that cost thousands of teenagers their chance to study at their dream university (proving once and for all that only government associates can isolate where they choose).
Instead of providing answers and calming reassurance, Williamson has stood by as Health Secretary Matt Hancock bulldozes what little reputation students have left. But by scapegoating the very group who were instructed to ‘eat out to help out’, instructed to ‘enjoy summer safely’ and instructed to migrate across the country to keep the student rental machine rolling, Williamson and Hancock have underestimated the bipartisan backlash. Already, Robert Halfon, a senior Conservative MP and Chair of the Education Select Committee, has backed refunds for affected students, a call that has also been endorsed by the left-wing pressure group Momentum.
So back to the liberation. Or lack thereof. At times, these first two weeks have felt more like house arrest than higher education. If the government is going to kick students whilst we’re down, at least kick us far enough to reach physical, mental and economic safety.