Covid stripped Uni life to its most minimal form


The things we've missed during the pandemic have proven it's the little things that make university so special

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Image by Luke Snell

By Alice Manning

When discussing the “winners” and “losers” of the pandemic – a concept that I cannot get behind – wider society’s responses to the situation students have found themselves in vary from patronising to apathetic. Clearly, students as a whole have not been disadvantaged in ways that other societal groups have. But while learning, our main responsibility has (to a certain extent) carried on.

Many students have been affected by broader consequences of Covid: job redundancies, reduced employment and volunteering opportunities– and, in particular, the destruction of any kind of social life. Add to this a lack of public sympathy reminiscent of Troy Bolton’s shrugging deportment, and it is easy to conclude that students as a whole have been royally trolled by the events of the past 15 months.

While it is a terrible fact that today’s university system has made a consumer of the student, this trans-formation has not followed through financially. Students have been offered no blanket support whether through funding, assuring the viability of our degrees (particularly for Sciences students) or the quality of the actual education we are meant to receive. The task of taking on university debts during a pandemic is no doubt terrifying for any government, but to receive the financial and emotional equivalent of a polished turd just takes the biscuit.

Yet whether the blame should be shifted onto the government, universities or the mere fact of the pandemic itself, is not the issue that I want to address. What I want to get at is the absence of the thing that should form the heart of what all universities set out to do. What is not as commonly acknowledged as it ought to be is the fact that academic brilliance and social creativity go hand in hand. While wider society enjoys mocking uni drinking culture – so much so, I might add, as to be implicitly feeding into it – in my experience at least, this does not form the bulk of meaningful student interactions. Studies are not an afterthought; they are the whole reason any one of us is here, and they are what frame the structure of lives in various ways. But studying is difficult. Studying is a full time job – more than that for many. And studying can also be incredibly lonely at times. While being able to focus so intensely on your degree subject can be a wonderful thing, at the end of the day completing said degree is not, generally, a collaborative experience. The social side of uni sustains independent studying, and provides a dose of sanity amidst the endless deadlines.

The social interaction that for much of this year has been transmuted through the unstable connections of Zoom has been missed in a way that many of us are still realising the power of. Undoubtedly, the expansion of online provision more generally is a step forward in making university accessible to all, and I very much hope this provision will continue in some form after the pandemic.

But it remains a fact that the past year has been incredibly isolating for students generally. And although this has affected the social lives of everyone in society to some extent, established workers have been able to find comfort in remote working through their families and pre-existing support systems. For students, much of our day-to-day lives revolve around the communities that exist on campus and in the university towns – lives that have been, for all intents and purposes, boxed up into bedrooms.

It is the intangible things that really make a great uni experience. You need them. You need the ability to have a cry in the library with your mate when your exam is in two days, fuelled by Red Bull and a purveying sense of anxiety about the future. Or the wonderful happenstance of meeting a friend of a friend whose dissertation topic is wild and fascinating. That chance conversation with a stranger that leads to you joining a society you’d never heard of before. The possibility of possibility. Maybe – just maybe – we are right to complain.

In my own case, it has been joyfully bittersweet to rediscover the simple coincidence of bumping into people you are vaguely familiar with: everyone from my first year lecturers to fellow editors from Nouse. I have witnessed it all with tired but fascinated eyes; but – not to be melodramatic – the knowledge that this marks the end of my time at York has come upon me like a death knell. And yet, what I’ve found is the one true thing I had missed this past year: serendipity. The chance to be surprised, the chance to voice your doubtful hopes for the future – for your degree, for graduation, for your whole life – and to not only be heard, but feel that, even in a small way, you are not alone.

I should add that this is not a blame game. There is little that could have prevented the drastic changes to university life seen in the past year –and, not being medically vulnerable, I know how privileged I am to be able to socialise again during these final few weeks of term. However, I think broadly my wish amounts to a case of society collectively acknowledging the losses of students and responding accordingly. Put simply, we didn’t receive what we signed up for as eager-eyed freshers. The Government and university officials deny this when they claim that students this year have had an adequate experience at university. “Adequate” does not tell the stories – or the struggles – of students at all “adequately".