Empty lecture halls and packed nightclubs – the university experience for the class of 2021

Image above: Edinburgh University ‘Big Cheese’ 

By Beccy Bollard

Alice is 18 years old and it’s her first week of classes at the University of Edinburgh. She’s in a large hall, anticipating the first big lecture of her university career. The hall is empty.

“I didn’t want to miss out,” she tells The Chiswick Calendar, laughing. Her schedule had said that, like much university teaching this year, the lecture would be held online. An email had said that it wasn’t. Her confusion is not necessarily unique.

Most of the UK universities went back this week, among them a flurry of incoming freshers from Chiswick excitedly went off to University for the very first time. This particular cohort, however, were aware that they would be starting their courses under very different circumstances than they would have, were we not still in the grips of the global coronavirus pandemic.

One of the largest differences they will face to the normal university experience will be the “blended learning” approach taken by many UK universities, the management of which led to Alice’s first week faux pas. This means, at the very least, educational gatherings of over 50 people must be held online.

Image above: Warwick students in a hall of residence

Zoe, a 19 year old from Chiswick, is also beginning her first year at the University of Warwick, studying History and Politics. She has sympathy with Alice’s mix-up, finding that the “mix of online and in-person lessons has been the most confusing thing”. This has been a “universal experience” she tells me from talking to her friends at other universities.

”They throw you in the deep end [and] expect you to know what’s happening.”

She cites a number of bureaucratic struggles, including a lack of clear communication and timetables that don’t work properly or update frequently.

Images above: Warwick University Freshers week; images from Instagram

Students can’t meet course-mates but can party

The confusion has in some ways, she suggests, provided a vital bonding experience at a time where socialising has been a concern. Freshers term, traditionally a hub of social activity, where one would expect to meet course-mates and bond over shared material, has taken on a new light as, according to Zoe “you end up having to rely on the people around you,” connecting over navigating your shared day-to-day confusion, rather than over your shared coursework woes.

Whilst she suggests that “not being able to talk to your course-mates” is the “worst part” of the COVID trade-off, students have managed to cope by relying on those more closely around them, such as their neighbours in halls. Alice has found that in Edinburgh, she’s been “very lucky to find friends,” but that not everyone, particularly those with less contact-heavy teaching, have had the same chances. “Some of my friends are joining societies” such as the Business society, to meet the course-mates they otherwise would have easily come into contact with at lectures.

Course-centric socialisation isn’t the only integral part of Freshers term that has taken on a different edge amid the restrictions and caution that attend the global pandemic. Large social gatherings such as club nights and the inaugural ‘Fresher’s Week’ events have become one of the main ways for students to socialise as, subject to the loosened government restrictions, new students have flocked to them to meet their fellow Freshers. However, this is not without its drawbacks.

“Everything is hinging on going out at night” Zoe tells me, and clubs are not exactly the ideal setting to get to know your friends – “You’re not really talking to people.”

Unfortunately, according to Zoe, this reliance on external establishments like nightclubs can heighten the sense of “pressure” to go out or engage in activities that involve lots of drinking or staying up to all hours, for fear of missing out because you “can only go out with [people] at night.”

That is to assume that students are even comfortable to go out at all, as it cannot be overlooked that many of them may still wish to avoid socialising in large groups in enclosed spaces, for fear of catching Covid, posing yet more challenges to what has always been seen as a vital part of first attending university.

Images above: Warwick student prepares for Halloween; Edinburgh students at a lecture

An artibrary, inconsistent mesh of rules

What has emerged for these freshers, it seems, is a rather arbitrary, inconsistent mesh of rules split between university and government restrictions, that Zoe calls a “weird mix of being free and the university having to take responsibility.” Alice says societies, such as the University of Edinburgh ‘Model United Nations’ club, are held online, before the social spills out into the real world and everyone gathers at the local pub. Whilst Edinburgh’s weekly student club night ‘The Big Cheese’ is held every weekend in University facilities, lectures of over 50 people are held online.

Speaking to Ellen MacRae, the president of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, offered an illuminating perspective that untangles and makes sense of these seeming inconsistences in universities’ decisions. She reminds us that most of the UK Universities, with over 44,000 students, both old and new, arriving, had to begin making arrangements far in advance, “guessing what restrictions may be” in September from as early as April.

Whilst she acknowledges that the current climate may make the heavy reliance on online studying seem “too strict,” at the time of planning they were criticised as being “too reckless.” She is also aware of the perceived inconsistencies in the handling of student club nights and student societies but notes that the social regulations under Scottish law are restricted “not by capacity but by ventilation capacity.”

It is in fact the reconciling of rules on education and rules on hospitality, both of which are seen as parts of the university experience, but are governed by government legislation, that has produced these seemingly arbitrary restrictions on students.

She also understands one of the other concerns shared with The Chiswick Calendar, noting that the university still has “plenty of students who don’t feel ready yet to be in crowded space” and that this “risks leaving students behind.”

She is quick to point me to the concerted efforts that have been made to host regular Freshers events in the safest and most accessible ways possible, including holding the Fresher’s Fair in an “outdoor space with ticketing” and the “capacity to be social distanced,” requiring evidence of double vaccination (as per Scottish law) and student IDs on admission to student club nights, and hosting smaller “nice hospitality spaces” where music still plays, but without the pressure to drink or be in such busy environments.

Image above: Settling in; desk in student accommodation

I asked both Alice and Zoe whether they felt the reality of the Covid pandemic at university, in their day to day lives and living situation. Alice told me there were occasionally stark reminders, such as signs up asking that you wear a mask in student accommodation or the requirement to present a negative lateral flow test before entering some clubs in town, “depending on where you go and where you are there are different measures in place, but in reality they’re quite easy for students to get around and they aren’t being properly enforced.”

She hasn’t heard of anyone having Covid, but believes maybe it was “brushed under the carpet as freshers flu,” the catch-all nickname given to any ailment experienced in those first few weeks of term.

Despite the restrictions and the rocky shift to online teaching, both Alice and Zoe shared the unique, almost heightened sense of freedom they experienced.

“Despite all the frustration with the admin I think I much prefer it here than staying at home,” Zoe said of her transition. “I really did change as a person being stuck in my room; the move here has helped me get out of that rut.”

As their Freshers week coincided with the easing of restrictions, their newfound freedom both geographical (away from their lives and parents in west London) and legal, has allowed them to “meet so many people” and do “so much,” in fact making their Freshers experience seem doubly more exciting than it may have been any ordinary year, compared to the tedium of lockdown during the past year.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

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