We’ve witnessed a staggering year. From unparalleled loss to pivotal revolution, it’s safe to say we’re all overwhelmed.
Although disarray has been felt across every demographic around the globe, university students have been greatly impacted by the restrictions of COVID-19. Our mental wellbeing has been compromised, and it deserves urgent conversation.
With Christmas drawing near, we’re all trying to retain a small sliver of normality, reverting back to attempts of festive traditions. Though it may come at the cost of a crispy brown tree on Christmas Day, people are finding solace in decorating early; the usual tear-jerking adverts are back on TV, as is Strictly Come Dancing, with all its sparkle and sequins. I’m all for the return of traditions, feeling comforted by the thought of soon digging out the decorations twice my age, and puzzling at the arrival of another chin despite having consumed nothing but rich cheese and Irish cream liqueur for weeks on end. We’re doing what we can to find something close to normal.
"Much like the warped build-up to Christmas, the university experience this year has been surreal and frustrating."
The government decided to keep up traditions this year too, and sent us all back to university last September. They also chose consistency by giving the mental wellbeing of students a good push down the list of priorities. Much like the warped build-up to Christmas, the university experience this year has been surreal and frustrating. The days are imitations of what they should be—each of them foggy and blurring into one another, lacking the colour and vibrancy we all imagined we’d find. We have been fooled by the stories from students who went before us, and the task of building a life away from home has never been more difficult.
I think about the government and wonder how out of touch with reality those within it must be to have made a decision as imprudent as this. From where I stood last summer, it was perfectly obvious that a return to university would cause not just a second wave, but a stunning tsunami of coughs, fevers and useless noses and tongues. Nevertheless, it was deemed the best course of action and before we knew it, the virus was spreading like wildfire. By the end of September, around forty universities had reported positive cases, leading quickly to the self-isolation of thousands of students across the country.
"The uproar in Manchester came from a feeling of neglect, from the government’s clear disregard for our mental wellbeing, because sadly, isolation is a cruelty that was familiar to students long before 2020 reared its ugly head."
The term ‘isolation’ gained a new—or more specific—meaning in 2020, as did ‘bubble’ and ‘social distancing’. The fourteen days of self-isolation was and remains an accepted part of the efforts to help bring down the coronavirus; a position I, and nearly everybody I know, has experienced in recent months. But when it comes to self-isolating at university, students are not happy. In early November, hundreds of students at the University of Manchester protested after fences were erected outside Fallowfield halls of residence, sparking conversation around the students’ rights and wellbeing.
Even though this was an offensive display of imprisonment, students don’t have to be fenced in to feel the effects of isolation. The uproar in Manchester came from a feeling of neglect, from the government’s clear disregard for our mental wellbeing, because sadly, isolation is a cruelty that was familiar to students long before 2020 reared its ugly head. Generations of students will experience feelings of loneliness and isolation at some point throughout their university years, and the effects don’t end at one minute to midnight on the thirteenth day of keeping indoors. Living in halls can be a strange experience, for you are surrounded by more people than you’ve possibly ever lived with. The walls are so thin you can hear the bed springs creak beneath your flatmate’s back, but somehow, it feels as though you are in a raft that has drifted out to sea. You don’t bother to cry out because you think your voice would never carry far enough. Eventually, you know as little about yourself as every other stranger in the building.
"The walls are so thin you can hear the bed springs creak beneath your flatmate’s back, but somehow, it feels as though you are in a raft that has drifted out to sea. [...] Eventually, you know as little about yourself as every other stranger in the building."
This happened to me in 2018 when I started first year at a different university. And in hindsight, I know that there were things I could have done to make it easier; places I should have pushed myself to go. Despite this, I have never blamed myself for falling, and neither should you. Not if it’s happened in the past, and especially not if it’s happened—to any degree—this year. Because this time, the places and the people that, in other years, might have prevented or helped in times of isolation, are not there. Not only are they inaccessible, but to pursue them could result in a fine.
I believe that it became very clear in a matter of weeks what a return to university would mean for the students’ wellbeing. Anyone with a shred of sense could see that students would want to try to adapt to avoid the kind of isolation that has darkened so many university experiences. We knew, despite our best efforts, that the virus would spike and scores of us would be ordered to self-isolate. And so, the tragedy persists, with 37% students reporting poor mental health, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The students in Manchester cried out loud enough for their story to be heard up and down the country. In tearing down those fences, they brought to light the struggle that comes with spending all day and night in a room the size of a shoebox, and more broadly, the effects of loneliness at university. As a student who has experienced Freshers in a normal(ish) world versus the 2020 world, I can say that this struggle was inevitable. Anyone paying attention would see that to send us to university in these circumstances and expect success would be to pursue a groundless paradox.