Meet the students starting university during a global pandemic

Laura Reid meets some of the students starting degrees this autumn to find out how they’re feeling about beginning their university study during a global pandemic.

Jennifer Varlow pictured on A-level results day last month.

University life for first year students has come to be synonymous with packed lecture theatres, a busy freshers’ week, and a social calendar revolving around new friends from all walks of life.

Of course, that’s not the reality for everyone and for many of those starting their degrees this autumn, in the grips of the global coronavirus pandemic, the experience is likely to be one far from what they expected when they first applied for a place.

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The majority of higher education institutions are planning for ‘blended teaching’ - a mix of online and face-to-face learning - for the first semester at least. And with social distancing still advised by the Government, and additional protective measures urged when that’s not possible, university staff and students will also be adapting to a new way of life on campus.

University will look different to what many students expected when they applied as they start this autumn. Photo: Syda Productions - Adobe Stock.

“You build a picture in your head about what uni is going to be like...and that’s all been thrown out the window,” reflects Ralph Atkinson, a 19-year-old from Ilkley, who is due to start studying economics at the University of Sheffield later this month.

When he moves into student halls, he’ll become one household with his new flatmates but is advised to social distance from other people. Any large-scale lectures will be delivered online, though the university has said every course will include an element of face-to-face teaching.

“It’s ultimately about the course and education," he reflects, when asked whether university will be worth the money this year. "And I think that you will get the same value from - I’m not sure you’ll get the same enjoyment, but ultimately I think it’s the responsibility of universities to make sure students get the same educational experience.”

Whilst Ralph is not overly concerned about establishing new friendships - “everyone is in the same boat and it’s only natural people will look to make friends” - Matthew Cogan, who will soon be studying history at the University of Oxford, believes the social side of university will be “really different” to what he expected - and is concerned that could pose challenges.

“With freshers’ week, freshers’ reps have talked about doing lots of events online with a few events socially distanced which is obviously very different to what would usually be happening,” the 19-year-old from Menston says. “To an extent, that’s brought some worries about how difficult it will be to meet more people outside of the few you’ll be living next door to.”

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Brook Senior agrees there could be difficulties. The 23-year-old from Darlington is starting a degree in sports journalism at Leeds Trinity University after several years of working with telecommunications company BT.

“One of the big pulls of going to university was the social life and I think it’s a big part for everyone...There’s a bit of anxiety in the sense that there’s not a guarantee that everyone you live with you’ll get along with.

"In previous years, you’d have the opportunity at freshers’ to meet loads of different people on nights out, at events, in pubs and we won’t have that luxury...That embedding process in September is going to be a bit difficult as you’re going to be restricted.

“I’ve got an open mind but I do think it’s going to be more difficult to meet new people, make new friends and socialise than it would be in previous years...Even when we meet our coursemates face-to-face, the actual contact is going to be a bit difficult. Face masks and distance naturally just doesn’t invite conversation.”

Brook was keen to “get the ball rolling” in a new career path, so decided against the prospect of deferring - and for Matthew, who took a year out after sitting his A-levels last summer, working with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Belgium before travelling South America, postponing for another year was a “non-starter”.

“There’s not really much you can do at the moment - you can’t really travel, there aren’t that many jobs to go and work,” he says. “The Covid situation is the same for everyone and I’m hoping that when we all go down there, everyone will get on with things the best we can. It won’t be the same but I’m hoping everyone will embrace it as much as we can.”

Jennifer Varlow, who is due to attend the University of Sheffield to study history and politics, and Bethan Morris, who has a place to study primary teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University both contemplated hanging on a year.

But they feared that with others postponing due to the coronavirus circumstances, and those due to finish their post-16 education next summer also applying to start in 2021, demand for places would be high.

“It’s quite disappointing [that things will be different],” says 18-year-old Bethan, from York. “But I feel like I can still have a good time with what’s available. And I have got three years at uni so even if my first term, or first year maybe, is limited, I still have a lot of time to do the things I wanted to do when I went to uni.”

Jennifer, also 18 and from York, was one of thousands of students affected by the A-level fiasco last month. Awarded three B grades under the algorithm used by exams regulator Ofqual, she missed out on the AAB required to take a place studying law at the University of Nottingham.

She went through the clearing process to secure her spot at Sheffield, and was ultimately awarded AAB when the Government u-turned and allowed students to accept results estimated by their teachers instead.

“I think the grading was handled terribly,” she says. “I think the whole system was classist and very clearly a bad idea. It was really sad on results day seeing so many people I know struggling too. We were all having to make back up plans. It wasn’t the celebration we thought it would be.”

The grades Raafay Shahid was allocated also meant missing out on offered places. After going through clearing, the 18-year-old from Meanwood, Leeds, secured a spot studying software engineering at Sheffield Hallam University, which is also planning a mix of online learning and face-to-face teaching.

Because of the pandemic, Raafay has decided not to move out to student accommodation in Sheffield, for the first semester at least. “If I end up working from home, it’s just wasted money and university is expensive as it is."

Millie Costello agrees. She’s due to start an architecture course at Leeds Beckett University and though she lives in St Helens, she plans to travel to access in-person teaching, rather than pay accommodation fees.

The 18-year-old is a synchronised swimmer for Great Britain and is well-accustomed to making the journey as she’s a member of the City of Leeds Synchronised Swimming Club.

She only applied to university after getting two A-level results this summer, initially intending to take a further two next year having split her study around training. However, a Diploma in Sporting Excellence that she had obtained through Swim England meant she managed to meet the threshold of entry points to secure a place this year - and she decided to go for it.

“It’s definitely worth it to go,” she says. “No one knows how it’s going to be - it could be better than ever having [some of the teaching] online. We don’t know until it happens.”

Frazer Ormondroyd, who is soon to start a degree in counselling and psychology at Bradford College, says online learning has its benefits, helping some people, such as those with children, to better balance study and home life.

“I’ve got two dogs to look after and there’s times where rather than spending five hours on campus, to do that from home via Zoom would suit me fine and not be a problem."

The 46-year-old, who lives on a narrowboat at Apperley Bridge, spent years working as a singer and then performing arts teacher before suffering a mental health breakdown and deciding to begin a new career path.

“Some of the onus to getting value for money out of what you’re doing is how much work you put into it. Yes university is expensive, but for me it’s about me getting out of it as much as I possibly can.”

Indeed, many of those who have shared their thoughts on starting degree-level study this autumn talk of a general spirited determination to make the best out of the situation. Brook sums up the feeling.

“The general consensus among people I’m talking to is that this is a temporary thing and we’ll eventually get our freshers, we’ll eventually get to interact like people have in previous years. It’s just a case of riding it out. The general feeling is one of excitement despite the ever present uncertainty of the current climate.”

Leeds Beckett University said its students would receive a mix of face-to-face and remote teaching, with zones on campus to keep staff and students studying the same subjects together.

Manchester Metropolitan University said students will take one course unit at once in small study groups during time on campus to minimise who they’re mixing with. Lectures will be online, with classroom activities and practical sessions on campus.

At Oxford, teaching and research will be conducted in-person “when it is safe for both students and staff,” and will be combined with online lectures. Bradford College and Leeds Trinity are also taking a ‘blended’ approach, with safety measures such as enhanced cleaning in place.