The Covid-19 pandemic has heralded a strange new world for university students, bringing with it online classes, virtual fresher weeks, and blame for surges in infections.
Following Matt Hancock’s damning denouncement of the nation’s notorious Granny Slayers, I cannot help but notice the national emergence of familial tension. In my own family, Birmingham University students have joined an ever-growing file of blacklisted barbarians my grandmother refuses to touch with a barge pole, causing tremendous offence to my sister. However, as university lateral flow tests reveal few positive cases, justification for the nation’s narrative of super-spreader students is cast into doubt.
September warnings from SAGE that Higher Education ‘could amplify local and national transmission’ were seemingly not vehement enough. Term rolled around, and first-years were soon battling the bug, facing the sickening prospect of two weeks’ solitary confinement with a staircase of quasi-strangers. However, we can rest assured that Durham University authorities quelled any risk of a city-wide outbreak with their foolproof method of employing second and third-year students to deliver food parcels directly to colleges’ contaminated zones.
Food parcels posed another point of contention, and Durham University officials were soon trying to stamp out a Dickensian chorus of ‘Please, sir, I want some more’. Whilst my parents like to remind their ‘entitled’ children that, back in the day, their student diet consisted of rice, beans, and not much else, Generation Z is seemingly a tad more keyed up on nutrition; a pandemic package of pot noodles and pasta did not quite make the cut.
Whilst most Covid-19 positive culprits were confined to student rooms with all the pizzazz of prison cells, Manchester University decided to deal with its ailing jailbirds differently; the 7ft metal fencing erected around Fallowfield Campus was strangely reminiscent of London Zoo. UK universities are clearly beating the disciplinary drum, yet disregard for mental health will undoubtedly prove damaging; the Office of National Statistics warns that 16 to 24-year-olds are currently five times more likely to report feelings of loneliness than those aged 65 to 74.
Forgotten and brushed aside throughout the pandemic, students have been mis-sold promises of ‘blended learning’, facing uncertainty about how university life will treat them throughout the academic year. Lured by the prospect of security and educational enrichment, October saw me return up North to embark upon my Pan(dem)ic Masters: the 2020-21 fad proving to be all the rage for jobless graduates. Two terms and four face-to-face contact hours later, I am starting to wonder, however, whether a black screen of muted mics and bandwidth bothers is quite worth my £10,000.
True to form, landlords have outright refused to share the pain. Students are confronted by extortionate rent prices for dingy digs many cannot even use. This is the cruel reality of the marketisation of UK Higher Education: young people have been twisted and whittled into objectified commodities, and, in a global pandemic where the focus should be on protecting physical and mental health, they are being milked for money to ensure the survival of national institutions. Hopes of monetary compensation quashed by Michelle Donelan, any complaint made directly to universities seems futile and feeble.
At least it’s been a better year so far for Gavin Williamson, whose 2020 A-level mishaps seem to have been conveniently forgotten by the media, who are instead now pointing the pandemic finger at flagrant fresher activities. Students have long been blamed for rampant revelry, yet December’s lateral flow test results from universities suggested young people were no longer the main culprits driving the Covid-19 boom.
Whilst a 200-person party at Coventry University was a shindig for imbeciles, students cannot be lumped together as one homogeneously heedless band. The narrative of student indifference is scandalous. When called for, the vast majority of young people have self-isolated without a fuss.
Perhaps the pontificating press should take a break from blasting sitting ducks and instead blow the whistle on fatally flawed political policies. BoJo seems to have forgotten that, in the summer, he and his parliamentary posse actively incentivised young people to socialise with their sure-fire ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ campaign. It doesn’t take an armchair anthropologist to predict that cash-strapped students would take full advantage of such a scheme, triggering a spike in Covid-19 infections.
School pupils have rightly been prioritised throughout the pandemic; the impact on children’s cognitive development after a year of little to no socialisation is cause for concern. But as the Covid-19 sombrero is flattened and the silence on the subject of students continues, it is time for young people to stand up in arms and remind Boris Johnson that we are still here.
Students are too quickly a scapegoat; climbing Covid-19 figures resulted from a governmental failure in foresight, and young people deserve more.
Image: Roksana96 via Pixabay