University challenge: Who would be a student right now?

Victoria Lambert
·8 min read
Students may live in their college accommodation and drink outside the local bars, but they can't attend a lecture
Students may live in their college accommodation and drink outside the local bars, but they can't attend a lecture

As young people emerge from lockdown to play football, go to the pub, socialise and work, all legally, there is one thing they are still forbidden to do: broaden their minds in person.

That glittering prize – a human-to-human university education – is still not allowed. Students may live in their college accommodation and drink outside the local bars, but attend a lecture? That’ll be a no. Not even an extravagantly socially distanced, fully PPE-ed, sanitised-to-an-inch-of-your-life lecture. It’s too much of a risk, says the Government.

Instead, students who are not studying a course that has a particular practical element (for example medicine or education), have been told that in-person teaching will not resume until May 17 at earliest. That’s about five weeks away – and only a fortnight before exams are due to begin for many.

For first-year students, it means their entry into higher education will end as it started: under a Covid cloud. For final-year students, well, you can imagine the cramming – both academic and social – they’ll want to get through before they graduate (in whatever Covid-compliant shape that takes).

We shouldn’t underestimate how tough this is. Sabrina Miller, in her final year studying English at the University of Bristol, says the past year has been incredibly challenging. “This latest announcement is the cherry on top,” she says. “I hand in my final university assignment on May 12, so will never have another seminar again.

“I’ve spent more time at home than at university. The Government has completely abandoned those of us in higher education.”

No wonder Miller and many thousands of her peers are hopping mad. Perhaps the only surprise is that their response has been so measured. There have been moments over the past year when frustrations have boiled over – students tore down the Covid-fencing at the University of Manchester, last autumn, for example. But would anyone have been surprised if more vocal protests had occurred?

Let’s not forget these are not children being subsidised by the state to learn, as in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. These are the heirs to the millennial makeover of higher education, which made students into paying customers, able to shop around for what they wanted, with universities put under notice that standards had to rise and “Mickey Mouse” degrees were to end.

In October Students in Edinburgh held a protest as they felt misled after returning to their accommodation only to find their lectures were all online - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
In October Students in Edinburgh held a protest as they felt misled after returning to their accommodation only to find their lectures were all online - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

What kind of customer is it who doesn’t get an automatic rebate on sub-standard goods or services? Students are still paying their £9,000 a year – only now it is for the privilege of lessons conducted online.

And they understand – now from reality, not just supposition – that this type of learning cannot replace the educational experience of in-person discussions: the seminars where you can have a good row, the chance conversations on the way to the library, that “Eureka!” moment when a lecture room all gets the same revelation.

The university experience has always been a delightful paradox: it is about books while being about so much more than books. It is about abstract discussion and personal experience, individual growth and collective relationships, exploration and consolidation. It’s also as much about what happens in the lecture hall as what happens in the student union afterwards.

This is at the heart of the implied contract of a university education, and it’s why young people mortgage themselves to the hilt in signing it. Yet universities, while being hugely sympathetic to their clients’ concerns in many ways, are sticking firm about one aspect: the money.

When Debra Humphris, Vice Chancellor of the University of Brighton, was challenged on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on whether students should get rebates, she replied that students were “receiving the best possible education we can provide” and that everyone should remember we are in the “middle of a global pandemic”.

There’s no doubt that this is a difficult path for universities to tread. They are businesses that must balance the students’ complaints about money with strict rules around financing that are set in Westminster.

However, there is surely a huge danger now that the pool of potential students will dry up. A few years ago, I couldn’t imagine a conversation with one of my friends when the subject of where our children would go for Higher Education didn’t come up. Now, we are far more likely to discuss whether they should be looking for an apprenticeship or other vocational route.

As for the young people who do choose to go to university in the coming years, what courses will they want to sit? As it stands, our higher education system has effectively cleaved in two, with practical courses continuing while humanities stall. What message has it sent to the next generation, the potential art historians at St Andrews, the geographers at Reading, the Oxbridge literary students?

It’s no exaggeration to say we could be looking at an unforced shrinkage of our lauded, world-class higher education sector. Frankly, we should all be up in arms.

‘I’m thinking about holding off on going to university for a year’

Samuel Hall, 18, Blackpool

I’ve always wanted to go to university. But after seeing how students have been treated over the past twelve months, I am seriously reconsidering my choices.

I have worked hard to get good grades, but socially I have lost some of my confidence; if there is another lockdown, I don’t want to be stuck in a new city with people I don’t know. Last year, some students weren’t even allowed to leave their accommodation. At least I’ve got access to a garden, and plenty of food, at home. Lots of my friends have decided they aren’t going to university this year, as they would rather spend another living with their parents than get locked down on campus.

I want the teaching to be face-to-face – otherwise it feels like a waste of time. After months of online lessons, my grades have slipped and I’m not willing to sacrifice the future I’ve worked so hard for.

‘My daughter’s experience has made me question the point of higher education’

Kath Brown, 57, London

Kath Brown with her daughter Grace
Kath Brown with her daughter Grace

Every time a Vice Chancellor brazenly states that students have been getting value for money through the pandemic it makes my blood boil: last month my daughter Gracie, in her third year studying English at the University of Liverpool, wrote her 10,000 word dissertation with no face-to-face support or access to the library. We bought the books she needed on Amazon, on top of the student accommodation she has hardly set foot in.

To have her freedom curtailed has been challenging for both her and me and her dad. She wants to live her life as young adults do, whereas we would quite like to not have loud 21-year-olds meeting up in our garden. The whole experience has really made me question what the point of university is and we’re seriously looking at the alternatives for my son Freddie, who is 17. We went to loads of open days when choosing for Gracie and all the unis are so clever at marketing themselves – but the pandemic has shown that most are unwilling to deliver.

‘I'm going back into halls next year so I can have a proper university experience’

Grace Armitage, 19, Leeds

Grace Armitage
Grace Armitage

My first year of university turned out very differently to how I imagined. When I started in September, we were only allowed to socialise with the people we lived with in halls: that meant no nightclubs or meeting new people at parties. I found it really hard as I didn't get on very well with my flatmates. When restrictions allowed it, I ended up going home a lot; I had always dreamed of moving away but instead I found myself back sitting in my childhood bedroom.

Due to the lockdown, we weren't allowed back on campus for the entire second term. This meant I was eating, sleeping and working in my room and my mental health started to suffer. I reached out for support, but everything had to be done remotely. I didn’t really have any close friends I could turn to on campus so it became a struggle.

Being allowed back on May 17 feels pointless because my exams finish a week later and are taking place online anyway. It feels like the government is very out of touch with students.

I’ve made the difficult decision to go back into university accommodation next year in the hope that I can experience all the usual student milestones. Going back to halls means that I’m missing out on living in a second year house, but it seems worth it to meet people that I might click with.

Related: I can go to the pub and the gym, but I still can’t go to a uni lecture