'I suppose you're stuck with these people': the students facing an uncertain new term


Starting university is, for most people, equal parts exciting and daunting. There are flatmates to meet, coursemates to bond with, new interests to explore and chaotic nights out to be had. But for students starting university next week, they have another emotion to add to the mix: uncertainty.

Hannah Tytko is starting a nutrition and dietetics course at the University of Surrey next week, and is unsure what to expect. “I’m going to be living in a flat with essentially six strangers so they’ll be seven of us in total. Luckily there are Facebook group chats so you can start to get a grasp of who you’re going to be living with. But I suppose under the new guidelines you’re stuck with these people,” she says.

Just days before the new term starts at most universities, the government has ushered in new rules aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19. Among these is the “rule of six”, preventing groups of over six from socialising together. While educational institutions are exempt, the rules still apply to “private gatherings” among students. Tytko speculates that the rule could mean her flat of seven will be unable to socialise together.

Published on the same day, last minute guidance from the Department for Education warns that university campuses may be subject to local lockdowns that could see students confined to their halls of residence in the event of coronavirus outbreaks, along with restrictions on face-to-face teaching and socialising – though they encourage “Covid-secure” mingling.

The contradictory messages from government have left students feeling that there is a gulf between what they were promised in the summer and the reality this autumn, warns Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students.

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“Students are incredibly worried that the government hasn’t considered their needs during this pandemic,” she says. “[The guidance] has come incredibly late, particularly since lots of students have already started moving. We’ve been asking for months for clear guidance on how students form new households safely. I feel as though students have been lied to for months about what’s possible and what’s safe.”

Many students are worried about the toll the restrictions could take on their mental health. “Halls for the most part are quite small, so they’re perfect to cater for a ‘drop in, drop out’ lifestyle,” says Tytko. “If you start to limit this, there’s potential for issues to arise.”

Moni Serneabat Ungar, who is entering her third year of a film and TV studies degree at the University of Glasgow, agrees. “If this had happened [in my first year], it could have been quite dangerous because I was really unhappy in my flat, and staying with my grandparents for a weekend was very important to me,” she says.

Jasmin Ly, a third-year chemistry student at Nottingham University, is concerned that Covid-19 could still easily spread on campus, even with the new measures. “If each person attends tutorials in groups of six, or someone plays a sport or leads a society in person, then the network of people involved is huge,” she says.

Meanwhile, universities are cancelling or shifting online their induction activities in response to the new guidance. While universities with large, leafy campuses such as Surrey are able to host some events outdoors, others are finding ways to socially distance events, for instance through silent discos and cinema trips. Others, such as the University of Sunderland, are trying to recreate the experience online, including through immersive digital campus replicas – some of which resemble life simulation video games such as The Sims.

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Freshers was typically an opportunity for new starters to sign up to university societies, but some will struggle because of the new rules. Lauren Shireff, who edits the Oxford Student, says the newspaper will not be printed because opening the building is considered a “low priority” for the university. And Mary Jones, secretary of the squash and racketball club for Leeds University, wonders how she will recruit new paying members without taster sessions this year.

The new guidance will also affect how classes are delivered. While students were originally promised “blended” learning – combining online lectures with in-person seminars – some universities moving more in favour of online. An initial survey of 500 students by the Hype Collective marketing agency following the announcement suggested that 60% of students now think their degree will offer worse value than they had expected.

This is a concern for Gurpal Sahota, who is about to start a politics course at Cardiff University. “I knew that social distancing and online learning was always going to be a part of university when I arrived in September. However, the recent increase in cases has made me question what I’m going to get for my money if we have to move to full online learning or, if like in the US we get sent home due to rises in cases,” he says. “My university has given us very little information as to any socialising and the restrictions that will be in place.”

Universities are conscious of the need to honour their promises to students over the summer. The vice-chancellor of Birmingham City University, Philip Plowden, says he will achieve this by halving campus capacity to ensure face-to-face teaching can be socially distanced. “We gave them a pledge that the majority of their teaching this year would be delivered on campus and face-to-face, and the latest guidance from the government does not change this commitment,” he says.

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But at Surrey, Tytko says she’s seen a change in plans for how courses will be delivered. “Especially over the last few days there’s been a trend to move a lot more activities online, and that might be a worry,” she says.

Martin Paul Eve, a professor at Birkbeck University who is leading on its shift to online learning, thinks that universities should have followed his institution’s example and planned for high quality online learning to ensure a consistent message for their students and protect the health of staff.

“Most staff had a really uncertain summer, where there’s been pressure from institutional management to offer face to face teaching even while the medical advice has predicted a catastrophic wave of reinfection in the autumn,” he says.

Despite the confusion, some students are relieved that their safety is now the priority. “The new government guidance makes me feel safer about going back to university,” says Stephi Bourliakas, who will study physics with astrophysics at Exeter University. “Living with family who are vulnerable and shielding during the holidays, I’m most worried about the spike in cases that will inevitably be caused by students from across the country returning to university. I hope this new rule will limit that.”



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