How university social life is going virtual in age of coronavirus

Students could be faced with virtual freshers’ week events, fewer large-scale lectures and one-way systems across campus in a bid to keep them safe when universities return. Chris Burn reports.

Jake Verity is president of Sheffield Students' Union

Like almost every organisation in the world, Sheffield University Students’ Union has had to dramatically change the way it does things as a result of Covid-19.

In what should have been a celebratory last few months of term as students completed their exams before heading home for the summer, its buildings have been shut and most of its 700 members of staff placed on furlough.

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But in an attempt to adapt to the new normal, many of its students’ union societies have been doing their best to operate virtually – running everything from baking classes to meditation sessions online.

Hundreds of people tuned in to watch an online DJ club night, while dozens of members of the Music Players’ Society combined their efforts to play a joint version of YMCA.

Jake Verity, president of the Sheffield University students’ union, says that students took the initiative to set up the virtual classes soon after lockdown.

“It has been a bizarre year even before coronavirus with the General Election and two lots of industrial action on campus,” says Verity, who is 21 and originally from Bradford.

“We shut our building about a week before the Government instigated lockdown. Thousands of people joined a Facebook group within a couple of hours. Our students took the initiative.

“That group went a long way in helping people. We get elected on manifestos and one of my promises was to run a music festival. I did it online. We are still trying to deliver.”  

Verity admits it is difficult to say how student unions like the one at Sheffield University will be able to operate when students return to campuses.

“It has been difficult for every organisation across the country.

“The furlough scheme has been massively beneficial for us. We are really having to think about our core mission to our staff, many of which are students.

“We have to be optimistic. One of the things that has come out of this is it has really demonstrated the value that student unions give to universities.”

Verity has also written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock urging him to cancel the student debt of those who worked for the NHS during the pandemic.
“Our Activities Officer [Martha Evans] who is co-signing this letter has balanced her role at the Students’ Union with working part-time at a hospital and has told us first hand of her pride at leaving the hospital,” the letter states.

“But that trip home would be made much easier if our student NHS workers were better remunerated, had greater job security and ultimately didn’t have to pay fees whilst saving lives.”

The work of students’ unions is just one part of university life that is being considerably altered by the pandemic.

Earlier this month, university leaders unveiled a series of proposals for easing out of lockdown safely – including a mix of online and face-to-face classes, as well as considering making students live in a “bubble” with people on the same courses to limit social mixing when campuses reopen in the autumn.

Students arriving at university for the first time could be faced with virtual freshers’ week events, fewer large-scale lectures and one-way systems across campus in a bid to keep them safe.

Universities UK (UUK) has published a set of principles for universities to consider as they emerge from lockdown – including how to encourage social distancing.

Virtual work placements and a greater use of outdoor spaces for classes and extracurricular activities are some ideas being considered by universities.

But there are hopes that things will be returning to some form of normality by the time the new academic year begins.

Last week, a UUK poll found 97 per cent of universities plan to provide at least some in-person teaching to students from autumn, with 87 per cent intending to offer in-person sporting, fitness and well-being.

Verity, who did a geography degree before his term as union president, is now looking to the future himself as he aims to find a graduate job.

“Like everyone, I’m job-searching. For all students graduating, it is going to be tough because there are no jobs out there.”

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