University campuses in England will not reopen fully until mid-May at the earliest, the government has announced, leaving many students to continue remote learning for at least another month. Amid concerns about mental health and the quality of education, four students shared their response to the news.
‘I feel very neglected, and the rest of my cohort do as well’
“It just doesn’t really sit well with me,” said Zach Breslin, an 18-year-old first-year student at the University of Lincoln. “I don’t understand how you can open schools – primary and secondary – and colleges which have classes of 30, when I have a class of eight and we can accommodate social distancing more than a corridor in a school.”
Breslin said the news would not have much impact on the rest of his year; by mid-May his teaching will be over with only exams left to complete, which will be submitted online anyway.
“I feel very neglected, and the rest of my cohort do as well. No one can see justification for opening everything else up and letting practical students back, but leaving all the theory ones forgotten about,” he said.
However, for Breslin, the uncertainty of not knowing when he would be returning to campus has been the most difficult to deal with.
“It’s absolutely awful, you get your hopes up waiting for the government to mention something. It’s the constant uncertainty that you’ll go back this week, or after Easter, but by the end you realise you’re in the same room, staring at the same four walls.”
‘Sometimes it feels like I’m not at university at all’
“I find it strange that people can go to the pub, but unis can’t reopen yet,” said Giang Nguyen, a 21-year-old politics, philosophy and economics student in her final year at the University of York. “It feels like we’ve been left behind.”
As an international student the high cost of fees also plays on Nguyen’s mind. Her university education costs £16,000 per year and increases 2% each year, and she said the online experience was “definitely not worth” the money she paid for it. “Sometimes it feels like I’m not at university at all.”
Alongside the day-to-day difficulties of remote learning, Nguyen said she was concerned about the impact the pandemic will have on her job prospects. She said she had been planning to go into a career in consulting, project management or PR, but was now considering retraining altogether.
“You need to go to a lot of networking events, and meet recruiters,” she said. “The job market is also concerning me. People who lost their jobs [during the pandemic] will be applying for new ones, and I don’t know if the career I want to go for will have any options.”
“I’m thinking about retraining as a data scientist. The government seem to really focus more on getting tech jobs, and the Office for Students has funding to do a conversation course in data science.”
‘I found it really isolating’
Maisie, 19, started her undergraduate degree in history at the University of Oxford in September. Since returning home to Bristol for Christmas, she has not been back to campus.
“I still have boxes of kitchen supplies in my bedroom,” she said. “In my head, I would be back in January. I hadn’t anticipated it would be mid-April and I still haven’t been back.”
Maisie said making new friends had been “quite a struggle. I get along with my housemates, but other than that there’s not really an opportunity to meet anyone outside of your bubble,” she said. “Uni is often portrayed as the time of your life. But getting there, it feels like I’m in a strange boarding school, not allowed to go out and with a curfew.”
Maisie said she felt her mental health had “suffered a lot” as a result of the remote learning. “At home I have quite a big group of friends, so going to uni, where I barely met anyone, I found it really isolating,” she said.
“It made me quite anxious with all the measures being put in place. Even coming back home with family again, it’s still really isolating. It’s probably hit me more this time because during the first lockdown I had time to be on FaceTime. Now I don’t have time as I have uni work and revision.”
‘I simply can’t stay motivated’
In London, the 26-year-old PhD student Will Coles said that while he could understand the decision to wait until mid-May before opening campuses fully, months of remote learning had left him eager to return as soon as possible.
“I can see the logic behind it because freshers flu is a thing every September, and demonstrates how easily things spread when people come from all corners of the globe to one place. So I understand the caution,” he said. “But if it opened tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel frightened.”
Coles said that months of lockdown had left him lacking motivation.“ The first lockdown felt OK, almost like a break, and then, come September and the November lockdown, it really started to take a toll,” he said.
“When you’re a postgrad, what keeps you motivated is discussing your work with others. In September, when the library reopened most of my friends were still abroad, and many [were] frightened to come in.
“I found it hugely difficult to be motivated by my work. Looking back, I think what’s damaged my postgraduate degree is not the lack of access to resources, it’s the lack of contact.”
He also said he thought more needed to be done to support the mental health of students. “Universities have not taken into account the blow that the mental health of many students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, has received,” he added.
“If you’re struggling with your mental health, unis won’t simply take your word for it, and getting proof of these things is incredibly difficult. I got a six month extension on my deadline and scholarship to compensate, and that was great, but now I’m still expected to produce the same level of work because the library is open, but because the social aspect isn’t there, I’m working at 50%. I simply can’t stay motivated.”