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'Broken and defeated': UK university students on the impact of Covid rules

Posted at Jan 12, 2021

W ith much of the focus in recent weeks on schools, UK university students have reported feeling forgotten by the government, with no rebates offered on tuition fees and calls growing for rent refunds as many students are asked not to return to campuses. As they prepare to begin the second term, five students speak about their concerns.

‘We’re all feeling broken and defeated’

“Last week, Boris Johnson didn’t address us in the press conference announcing the national lockdown in England at all. It shows he doesn’t really have any care or concern, especially for our mental health,” says Sophie Sengupta, a 19-year-old first-year student at the University of Liverpool.

“There’s a real emphasis on schoolchildren at the moment, and I understand it’s hard on everyone, but they aren’t away from their families. They get to go home to their mum and dad and have that support. When you’re at uni, you’re on your own.”

Sophie Sengupta. Photograph: Sophie Sengupta/Guardian Community

Like many students who contacted the Guardian via a callout, Sengupta says her mental health was at “the lowest it’s ever been” during the first term.

“What I’m concerned about now, and a lot of my peers feel the same, is that we’ve all got exams coming up in January, and we’re all feeling broken and defeated,” she says. “Gavin Williamson cancelled A-levels and GCSEs, but there was no mention of our exams in a few weeks.”

‘We are in the middle of a mental health crisis’

“My mental health has been very poor,” says Alex*, a University of Exeter psychology student. “I have had numerous friends express their own increasing difficulties with depression and anxiety.”

Moreover, Alex is concerned by how difficult it has been to access wellbeing services. “The university says that they are easily accessible but in reality making contact is difficult,” she says. “On one occasion I did try to call the team for some support, but the phone line was shut with a message to call emergency services if you were having a crisis and if not to email them to book an appointment.”

She says the university has said marking will not be relaxed. “We are in the middle of a mental health crisis and no one is talking about it seriously; no serious action is being taken,” she says.

‘I feel I have no alternative options’

Reece Lawson, 19, a first-year international politics student at the University of Liverpool, decided to return to the city in late December. “There were restrictions at home [in Northern Ireland] and I wanted to make sure I’d be able to get back over,” he says.

He feels “a little disappointed” by his university experience so far but says he did not consider staying at home as his university has not yet offered rent rebates. “It would just mean paying money to not be here.”

Reece Lawson. Photograph: Reece Lawson/Guardian Community

With part-time work scarce, Lawson is one of many university students whose financial situation is increasingly dire. “It’s almost impossible to find a job either in Belfast or Liverpool due to the closure of bars, restaurants and retailers. If I was to leave university, I’d just be sitting at home with nothing to do. I feel I have no alternative options,” he says.

“Fingers crossed, this lockdown will end in February or March and I’ll be able to get a hospitality job then. I do feel like I’m missing out on the full uni experience but hopefully by second or third year things will be back to normal.”

‘It’s not worth the stress’

Emily* is not returning to university in Dundee, where she is in her second year, until the course of the pandemic “changes dramatically”. For her, the main difficulty has been divisions with her housemates over coronavirus regulations. She says one housemate has been breaking public health rules to make regular trips to nearby cities, attend parties and have visitors over.

“When I once spoke to her about going to one of these parties, she didn’t see the problem, saying that she left before the police turned up,” she says. “She also had one of her friends spend the weekend at ours, which I first found out when I found a stranger in our kitchen.”

Emily has found online learning frustrating. “I was spending all day sat at a tiny desk, then moving to my bed a hand width behind me. By the time I finished my work it was dark outside and I didn’t feel safe going out for a walk,” she says.

“Working from home isn’t ideal: the wifi isn’t perfect, and my family will interrupt me. It’s also frustrating knowing I won’t be able to see my friends from uni,” she says. “But all in all, being at my uni house is not worth the stress.”

‘The workload made the isolation worse’

Mary-Grace Oludoyi, who studies law at the LSE, has found the workload difficult to manage without in-person learning and normal social activities to balance her time. Reduced student numbers meant she shared a flat with just two people and she was unable to invite anyone over.

Mary-Grace Oludoyi. Photograph: Mary-Grace Oludoyi/Guardian Community

“That was really hard for me,” she says. “The main difficulty of it all was trying to deal with your own issues at home, settling in to uni, coping with your mental health, and on top of that, a crazy workload that can drown you. The workload made the isolation worse because you’d get up to do work all day and not speak to anyone.

“Even stuff like who I will live with in second year is difficult,” she adds. “Do I know anyone well enough? I’ve only met them about three times.”

*Some names have been changed.