COVID-19 at university

Undergraduates are hit hard as the pandemic transforms learning environment and student lifestyle

Furious students tear down 'new lockdown fences' during passionate protest  against Manchester University's decision to 'pen them in' - Manchester  Evening News
Photo by Joel Goodman for Manchester Evening News

— 3 minute read — By Ed Bazeley

The coronavirus pandemic has created many challenges for the people of the UK. University students are not exempt from this list, especially those who began their higher-education journey this September.  

Beginning university life is a potentially daunting prospect at the best of times. The way in which new students leave their hometown friends behind and move to entirely different surroundings is very difficult for some. Add a global pandemic into the mix and settling into university becomes even harder – not least because of the cancellation of fresher’s events. The infamous rule of six made it evermore difficult for students to go out and socialise.

The initial national lockdown meant that even those who arrived at university aged 18 with fresh A-Level results had not been in any form of education since March. Re-moulding into an academic routine was an underestimated hardship in a COVID-19-dictated introduction to university.

Due to social distancing laws, flat parties have been illegal in the UK – though there have been some exceptions in Wales where four households were allowed to meet in early September. These laws have not deterred some students from hosting such events though. Four students at Nottingham Trent University were fined £10,000 each for hosting an illegal party which 30 others attended on the night before Nottingham faced ‘Tier 3’ restrictions.  

County lines drug dealers have been targeting students whose halls are in lockdown amid the pandemic.  

The introduction of a second national lockdown in early November brought further stress to students. The University of Manchester’s response to this lockdown attracted significant media attention for all the wrong reasons. The university erected tall metal barriers around their Fallowfield accommodation campus and did not warn their students prior to taking this draconian measure. Students angrily tore down the fencing en-masse which led to the university releasing an apology, in which they claimed the fences were in place to prevent outsiders entering the accommodation as opposed to enclosing students in.  

Students at the University of Manchester occupied the Owen’s Park tower (university building) demanding that they should have some form of rent rebate due to the less than satisfying university journey they had so far endured. This protest was successful – UoM students will receive compensation worth the equivalent of a month’s rent. 

The University of Manchester came under fire once again when a black first year student, Zac Adan, was pinned up against a wall by security guards who demanded to see his university identification card – citing him as a potential local drug dealer. Adan stated that when he asked for help he was told “not to pull the race card”. The incident has reportedly left him feeling out-of-place and traumatised.

The government’s announcement of a travel window (3rd-9th December) for students has meant that, even in universities where learning is currently blended (both online and face-to-face teaching), all lectures and seminars will be held via the internet from the 9th December until the Christmas break. Consequently no students will be receiving the type of education they’d be anticipating.  

The circumstances of 2020 have put a huge strain on the mental health of all UK residents, perhaps none more so than students living apart from their relatives. For students, being isolated in a small room with other people you have not met before is a daunting prospect. Suicide helplines have received a record number of calls from UK university students this year.  Eleven university students have died since the start of term in September, a record number in the same timeframe. These have been nationwide, including in Bangor, Bath, Newcastle and Cardiff. Whilst not all of the deaths have been linked with suicide, the likelihood of turning to drugs and alcohol under a fragile mental state is increased.

Students echo the rest of society in hoping that a more normal way of life will soon return.  

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58 or visit Nightline Association for specific advice for your university Nightline Association.