University students have told of the mental health impact of the coronavirus restrictions on campuses and demanded to be refunded part of their tuition fees.
Young people from across the UK have moved into halls and student houses after months at home, but rising coronavirus cases have led to face-to-face teaching being halted in some universities until test and trace improves and the spread of the virus is curbed.
Hermione Marshall, 21, a third year English student at the University of Edinburgh said that she would not have returned to university if she had known there was not going to be much in person teaching – a decision which students were informed of a week before the start of term.
“I rely on being able to go home frequently to support my mental health, and as I will be unable to do this this year, I am very worried I will have a lot of difficulties in managing this,” she said.
“It feels like we are being punished for being students. It’s ridiculous how they’ve treated us. We’re being treated like robots: ‘You’ve got to live in these conditions’, ‘You can’t go out’, ‘Do what you’re told’, ‘We’re not going to tell you how your courses will be delivered’; ‘We will not ask you how you want it to be delivered’.”
She added: “I’m going to be in about £80,000 of debt after this. Where is the money going, what is it being spent on? It feels like they made us come up here so they can extract rent from us.”
At Newcastle university, 19-year-old second year student Izzie King is self-isolating after testing positive for coronavirus. “I had all the symptoms; high fever, cough, and I still can’t taste or smell anything. It started on Monday, I got tested on Wednesday, and it was gone by Thursday,” she said.
“Our nearest testing site was a 45-minute walk away, I had to walk there and back when it was cold and raining.”
She added: “My parents have been very worried and scared but me and my flatmates who have had it are not afraid of it, it was just like a bad cold for us. I’m glad I got it up here and not down with my parents.”
The start of her term has effectively been delayed, by around three weeks until 19 October, an email from the university to students shows, and she is among some 200,000 people who have signed a petition calling for the government to force universities to partially refund fees.
“The need for online teaching is clear, it is safer for all, yet I remain unconvinced that the same quality of teaching will be provided,” she added.
“Speaking as someone currently in isolation, it takes a significant toll on your mental health. Not being able to go outside, or see anyone else, it can be devastatingly lonely.”
Sam Fearon, 20, a maths student at Bristol, also believes there should be some reimbursement – particularly after strikes last academic year and the early suspension of teaching due to coronavirus.
“It seems this year we will once again effectively be taking an online course, at least for the first term of our degrees,” he said. “All the while we have been, and will continue to pay upwards of £9,000 a year for the service.”
He added: “It looks as though we will have to wear a mask and a visor in classrooms. This makes people a bit uncomfortable and feels a bit dystopian. A lot of people will end up not going. There’s a real air of discomfort and disconnection around the place.”
Fearon also warned that there would be consequences on restricting students’ abilities to socialise and attend classes. “Someone needs to do a proper cost-benefit analysis of this looking at the long-term consequences for students’ mental health and wellbeing,” he said. “It seems to me this could be doing more damage than good.”
At Cambridge, 23-year-old philosophy PhD student Lotte Hondebrink echoed his concerns, saying she feared the preclusion of all in-person teaching was shortsighted and that students were being unfairly vilified in the media.
“We need to be able to get together in small groups for educational purposes,” she said, adding it was unclear if her one-to-one supervision sessions would go ahead.
“There needs to be at least a real discussion in higher education about where to take things in the long run. When certain measures are starting to threaten what they were supposed to protect, they might go too far.”
Hondebrink said many students evidently care about the welfare of the community, and adhere to the physical distancing rules, but that they were being unfairly portrayed as a “homogenous, careless and selfish group of people”.