• Thomas Godfrey

Higher education or House Arrest? Inside University’s lockdown generation.

Evil, careless and selfish: What it’s like to be one of the UK’s most hated students.

It’s supposed to be the most liberating experience of your life. The freedom, the social life, the chance to start afresh. Yet for generation COVID, everything is different, yet nothing has changed. 

Different because, like many teenagers settling into their courses, I feel as if I’m at university in name only. With Zoom lectures becoming the furthest we’re allowed out of our rooms, and caught in a surge of Covid-19 cases amongst the young: can it really get much worse?

Already Universities are beginning to see the inevitable consequence of mixing thousands of 18-year-olds in one location: socialising. There’s no point pretending otherwise, it was very clearly going to happen - and the universities that fared best are the ones that embraced this inevitability and hosted Covid-safe events for social-hungry students to dig in to. In contrast, many universities somehow believed that a few lines in a rulebook would not only dissuade young people from unsafe socialising, but socialising at all.

Universities such as Oxford Brookes (which, for disclosure’s sake, is where I’m studying) have come under fire nationwide after a video leaked of a 100 person block party with no social distancing to be seen. 

Of course, the local Oxford Mail was only too happy to lambast the students, slurring us all as “selfish”. Minutes later, the Mail lurched back for seconds. Preying on the blood of the University press office, which was in the process of drafting a statement threatening gathering students with expulsion, a snarky Oxford Mail editorial entitled “an apology on behalf of Oxford Brookes students” was published, once again demonising ‘students’ for not apologising - despite not making it clear who they expected this apology from or allowing any measure of time for it to be issued. “By acting in this way” the Mail prescribes, “they have increasing (sic) the risk of spreading the Coronavirus... if they're not sorry, they damn well should be”. The passive-aggressive and inaccurate nature of the faux-apology isn’t misplaced from a newspaper that claims its entire twitter following of 74,000 reads its newspaper every day.

Seriously, do they want me to apologise? I’ve barely been outside, save for trips to Tesco and the launderette, and yet I’m to believe I’m a selfish, morally reprehensible Covid risk who’s dead set on drastically reducing Oxford’s elderly population. If the Oxford Mail needs an apology from me then here it is: I’m sorry your newspaper has been reduced to predefining all students as evil - despite the vast majority complying (as the Mail put it) “painstakingly” with regulations. It’s worth noting at this point that I offered, twice, to write a defence of evil Brookes students for the Oxford Mail. They didn’t reply.

However, the national outcry about Brookes Students’ flouting has fizzled out dramatically. Tougher enforcement of fines as well as the use of police - who at times have used flash-bang grenades on students (something the Oxford Mail has declined to report on) - has pulverised any chance of a forbidden mass gathering, much to the likely disgust of the Oxford Mail. 

The truth is that this could have been avoided through the use of COVID-safe events such as those put on by Surrey University, which provided a location for responsible socialising and the attractive prospect of a film night. Yet, because nobody can agree on what a ‘safe’ gathering is, the university has felt the backlash too. Their decision to actually provide in-person events as opposed to soulless online meet and greets has likely prevented more virus cases than it may have caused; if students were left to their own devices, many would have attended house parties with no safety measures whatsoever. Whilst not a positive reflection on students, pretending the problem goes away with a few new clauses in the university rulebook amounts to a serious dereliction of duty. 

For universities that went “cold turkey” in freshers week, the natural reaction has been catastrophic. In Glasgow, teenagers hid in cupboards to avoid police after an illegal party was raided. As a result, 600 students have been required to self-isolate after 124 positive cases. 

Further north in St Andrews, a mock air raid siren was played across campus by students poking fun at the Scottish University’s ‘voluntary’ 7pm curfew. Yet its the lack of regulated events that’s pushed students to the other end of the spectrum, with four students testing positive following an illegal house party, sparking panic nationwide over the safety of campuses.

So back to the liberation. Or lack thereof. At times, these first two weeks have felt like house arrest more than higher education. What universities fail to grasp, and what the government seemingly doesn’t want to, is that the more students find themselves subject to draconian restrictions, the more they’ll find ways around them. And does that really help anyone?


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