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Student lockdowns
Illustration Callum Abbott

Inside student halls hell with locked-down freshers

Student lockdowns

From Glasgow, Manchester, and Leeds halls of residence, first year students reveal their struggles with social distancing and boredom, the lack of guidance from their unis on the coronavirus outbreaks, and the inevitable parties

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

“I wouldn’t really call it self-isolation because the university has forced us into it,” says 20-year-old Patrick McVeigh, who’s just started at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). “We don’t really have a choice in it.”

Originally from Belfast, McVeigh is studying marketing. He moved to the north of England two weeks ago, and has been in coronavirus quarantine since his second week. “It’s really scary in a way, since I barely know anyone here,” he tells Dazed. “I can see the reasoning behind it, but it could have been dealt with in a manner that was much more suited to the students’ needs, rather than the university’s.”

McVeigh is just one of thousands of students trapped in lockdown at MMU. Approximately 1,700 students from two accommodation blocks were told to self-isolate – even if they didn’t have symptoms – after 127 people tested positive for COVID-19.

Sam Williams, aged 20, and Joshua Pitfield, aged 19, had been at MMU for one week when one of their flatmates tested positive. “Isolation is a great way to get to know everyone,” Williams, a politics and philosophy student, tells Dazed. “It still feels like we’re on holiday at the moment, but the lack of freedom might make it feel like a prison very soon.”

The pair and their flatmates have been keeping busy by making TikTok videos, playing games, and obsessively cleaning “just to relieve the boredom”. Though they have still found ways to let off steam and simulate a normal student life: getting drunk in the evenings.

“At night it begins to pick up,” agrees McVeigh, “the tunes begin to play and it’s actually really fun. It definitely takes your mind off the lockdown, and is a great way to meet people.”

Last week, MMU said students can consider everyone in their halls – not just their flat – as their ‘bubble’, enabling them to mix between households. This means students are able to hold bigger parties – much to the dismay of local residents, some who have complained that “security can’t go into the building to tell them to shut up”.

Students in other parts of the UK are also facing prolonged stints in halls lockdown. 18-year-old Stefanie Oldcorn is isolating at Glasgow University, after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. Oldcorn, who’s studying psychology, has received a £50 food voucher from the university, as well as cleaning products which enable her to do her laundry in her flat. This is better than students at Queen’s University in Belfast, who are being charged £210 for a food delivery.

“Everyone is starting to get a bit fed up and frustrated. What should be such an exciting time of our lives has led to us sitting in our rooms alone” – Stefanie Oldcorn, student at Glasgow University

Oldcorn says she’s been spending most of her time attending online lectures and tidying her room “over and over again”. She’s also “been socialising out the window from my room to try and speak to other people”. Although she was excited at the start of uni, Oldcorn says self-isolation has caused her a lot of anxiety and distress. “Everyone is starting to get a bit fed up and frustrated,” she says. “What should be such an exciting time of our lives has led to us sitting in our rooms alone.”

Tizzie Robinson-Gorton, aged 19, is teaching her flatmates TikTok dances in an attempt to pass the time in quarantine at the University of Edinburgh. She explains that although the university has put support mechanisms in place, “they are ad-hoc and distant”.

“The mental health services are online and virtual,” she adds, “which just adds to the growing isolation felt by us students. Food packages do arrive if you need them, but the bag of three meals often doesn’t arrive until late afternoon, is cold, and not adequate for all diets.” Though Robinson-Gorton asserts that “the camaraderie between us all has boosted morale”.

Aside from helping students take their rubbish out, Pitfield says his friends at MMU haven’t had “that much support from the uni in terms of isolation”. McVeigh goes further, claiming there has been “barely any communication between the university and the students”, and that “many of us have been left with no clear guidelines”.

In an email to Dazed, MMU confirmed that they had offered students a two-week rent rebate, and were giving each student a £50 voucher towards a food shop – the university says it organised with Asda to free up numerous delivery slots, though McVeigh said yesterday (October 1), that no one he knows has received the money yet.

“I recognise the impact that this situation is having on our students, particularly given the extremely short period of time we had to inform them of the decision,” Malcolm Press, MMU’s vice chancellor, said in a statement. “Their welfare is our top priority and that is why we have been working hard with organisations around the city to put support in place to help during this 14-day period.”

However, it seems MMU’s words have sometimes stood in contrast to its actions. On Saturday (September 26), the university sent a mass email to students demanding that they remove the signs they’d put up in their windows.

Locked down with little notice, and stuck in small flats with strangers, students have been using makeshift signs to vent their frustration to the outside world. Where once houses across the UK had an NHS rainbow in their windows, now students are asking, “9k 4 what?

Voicing their anger at a university system that prioritises the acquisition of rent over the wellbeing of its students, one sign accuses MMU of treating first years as “cash cows”. Another labels the halls, “HMP MMU”, while one asks the university to consider the mental health implications of locking students down. It reads: “Mental health comes first. Let us out.” One group of students jokingly asked the outside world to “send nudes, weed, and food”.

A tweet exposing the email went viral, and in its aftermath, the university issued a public apology. “We apologise for the message sent to our students last night about posters in windows,” the statement reads, “it didn’t reflect the university’s view. We respect the rights of students to express themselves, but as requested by @gmpolice, the posters must not break the law or they’ll have to be removed.” 

Speaking to Dazed, MMU said the police were “concerned by the offensive nature of some posters they saw on Friday night and asked for them to be removed”. The university says it’s asking students to be “mindful that offensive language could break the law”. It’s yet to be confirmed exactly what offensive language breaks the law, because according to the Tories, it’s not racism, misogyny, or Islamophobia, as our current PM proves.

“As a student paying £5,000 for a year of accommodation, and £9,250 annually for my degree, I feel cheated” – Patrick McVeigh, Manchester Metropolitan University

In fact, a number of the signs at MMU reference Boris Johnson, with one addressing the recent accusations that young people are to blame for the present second spike of the virus. “Whose fault?” it reads, with two boxes drawn below, respectively labelled, “Us or BoJo?” The students ticked the box under the latter.

Research released last week (October 2), shows that those aged between 17 and 24 are just as compliant to coronavirus restrictions as older people are. Independent Sage, the organisation behind the study, said it was “misleading” to cast young people as irresponsible spreaders of the virus, and urged the government to instead focus on improving its Test and Trace system.

Despite a lack of support, Williams (MMU) asserts that the blame for students’ current situation lies with the government, not the universities. “Westminster deemed it safe for all students to mass migrate across the country for uni,” he tells Dazed, “and then backtracked and imposed lockdowns when we got here. It’s profit before people.”

McVeigh (MMU) holds a different view. “We were highly encouraged to move into halls, and were told there would be COVID protocols in place, but there was never any suggestion that we’d be locked in,” he explains. “As a student paying £5,000 for a year of accommodation, and £9,250 annually for my degree, I feel cheated.”

Oldcorn (Glasgow) agrees. “We were conned into coming to university halls under the guise of in-person classes and the possibility of making new friends,” she declares, “when in reality, they have only brought us here so they can receive rent money from us. With all classes online, there is no reason for us to be in the city of the university.” Oldcorn says she has considered withholding her rent in protest against the university’s failures – and she isn’t alone.

A group organising as Glasgow Uni Rent Strike – established last month – accuses the university of not planning for the impact of coronavirus. “As a result, many students have contracted the virus,” the student-run group tweeted, “while many more deal with the mental effects of being isolated a long way from home. We recommend that all students stand in solidarity by withholding rent payments until the university works out a method to reimburse us for any negligence.”

Earlier this week, senior legal figures warned that lockdown rules for Scottish students were a breach of human rights laws. “You cannot hold people hostage in halls of residence,” Roddy Dunlop, the dean of the Faculty of Advocates, told the Telegraph. “It’s against the law.”

A University of Glasgow spokesperson tells Dazed: “We very much regret that the pandemic has impacted on students in our residences, and we recently announced a package of support to help. This includes a month rent-free, and £50 for every single one of the 2,800 students in our residences.” The university says it has also provided hot food, towels, and bedding for those in need, and will be stepping up measures to ensure support staff are in regular contact with students.

Still, many students feel deceived by their universities, which they say promised hybrid learning and, as Robinson-Gorton (Edinburgh) says, “the full experience”. 18-year-old Francesca Wolfin, who asked for her university not to be disclosed, says she’s found it “super tricky to get the hang of all the online admin we have to go through”.

“The lectures and welcome Zoom meetings that I’ve tried out, as well as online learning in general, are pretty overwhelming. There’s so many issues with the system everyday, and constantly receiving emails with new information is stressing me out a lot. I wish it was easier to navigate.”

In an email statement to Dazed, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the government was “supporting universities to provide a blend of online and in-person learning in a COVID-secure way this term”. They added: “The government expects universities to continue to deliver a high-quality academic experience, and we know many institutions have worked to ensure courses are fit for purpose.”

Though, the government shirked responsibility by asserting that “universities are autonomous” and that “there is an established process in place for students with concerns about their education”.

This may be true, but what happens when that process fails? “There has been absolutely no mental health support for students here,” McVeigh (MMU) tells Dazed. “No one to talk to, nowhere to exercise, absolutely nothing to keep us sane. From the very second we were locked in, there was pure panic throughout the building – people were on the phones to their family and friends looking for insight.”

18-year-old Ella Maggi, who’s isolating at Leeds Beckett University after testing positive for COVID-19, says she’s found it “quite lonely being at uni without the usual whirlwind start that most people have”. She says that “spending every night in has been difficult”, though “having the support of my flatmates, who are going through the same experience, has really helped”.

Many students did manage to get a one-week taste of ‘student life’ before campus’ went into lockdown. Though Williams and Pitfield say all of their friends at MMU were following the rules, other students weren’t quite so studious (though what can you expect?). “The rule of six was broken almost instantly,” says Oldcorn from Glasgow. “A couple of flat parties happened in Freshers’ Week, but they got shut down almost instantly.”

One student – who tells Dazed they can’t speak on the record because the university has threatened suspension and expulsion over coronavirus rule-breaking – says the government’s 10PM pub curfew “has merely pushed social gatherings underground”. They add: “It’s hard to not want to meet with people when they’re just behind another door on your corridor.”

Large parties at universities in Coventry, Swansea, and Reading have all hit the headlines in recent weeks, with police even threatening to take action against rulebreakers. It could be argued, however, that the government and further education institutions actually encouraged this by urging students to return to university for Freshers’ Week – a period renowned for heavy drinking and mass gatherings.

“The 10PM pub curfew has merely pushed social gatherings underground. It’s hard to not want to meet with people when they’re just behind another door on your corridor” – Anonymous

FOMO aside, students have something else daunting to worry about: their Christmas plans. Not only have first years been lured to university only to be locked away in their halls, but now they might be stuck there for the foreseeable future. Last week, health secretary Matt Hancock suggested that students might be banned from returning home for Christmas, in order to limit the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s an abhorrent idea given they said it was fine for all of us to come here in the first place,” Williams (MMU) tells Dazed. “I know there would be protests if they tried to impose that. Even if it were enforced, I can’t see anyone agreeing to it.”

After mass outrage, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, set out a plan to allow students to be with their families over the festive period. Though, what the government says might not matter to students by then. “Once again, young people are being ostracised by those in power. I’m not suggesting there will be a coup d’état, but for sure, the student body will make it home for Christmas.”