Isolating in dorm rooms, no socializing, and online classes. The British university students living through the pandemic

By now, British students should have been enjoying their first weeks of university and all the freedom and chaos the experience typically brings. Instead, they have been battling a far different reality.

a man standing next to a bicycle: Tara Kelly, 20, is in her final year at the University of Oxford, but says the city is far different from the Oxford she left last year.

© Tara Kelly
Tara Kelly, 20, is in her final year at the University of Oxford, but says the city is far different from the Oxford she left last year.

With coronavirus cases rising, particularly in northern parts of England, many have been forced to self-isolate in student halls, unable to leave even to go food shopping. Under government guidance, updated at the end of last month, students in areas with additional restrictions aren’t even allowed to return to their family homes, in case that increases the risk of the COVID-19 infection spreading.


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The picture became bleaker on Monday, as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a three-tier system with a number of northern towns and cities facing tougher measures. However, Johnson said that universities, along with schools and retail premises, would remain open in all tiers of restrictions.

Read: ‘These pictures shame our city’: Liverpool’s mayor blasts crowds partying on eve of new COVID-19 restrictions

Universities may be open in the official sense but students are getting anything but a typical experience. Manchester’s two main universities — Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Manchester — moved all teaching online earlier this month, with the exception of clinical, medical and laboratory-based teaching. Face-to-face teaching has also been suspended at the University of Sheffield due to surging COVID-19 infections.

But it isn’t just the universities in badly-affected northern cities, other institutions further south like the University of Oxford have also moved some lectures online.

First-year students aren’t alone in having to adapt to the new normal, with students in all years of their degrees finding they have returned to live and study in cities that have changed almost beyond recognition.

Liam Keown*, 19, a first-year student at the University of Manchester, was forced to self-isolate in his accommodation for a 10-day period after testing positive for COVID-19.

a man smiling for the camera: University of Manchester student Liam Keown was unable to leave his flat even for food.

© Liam Keown
University of Manchester student Liam Keown was unable to leave his flat even for food.

“For the last few years I have been working hours on end doing schoolwork and revising in order to get into the university I wanted to go to and to make the next step in my life; earning the independence that I’ve craved for so long.

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“However, since arriving at university this has been far from the case.

“Even before my isolation started, the opportunities to leave my accommodation were scarce as my lectures and tutorials had all been moved online and I was told that many sports club trials had been postponed. Immediately, without being in actual isolation, I felt confined to my room and kitchen, besides occasional shopping trips and gym sessions.

“If I hadn’t got on well with my new flatmates from the start, I would have struggled even more, as there has been little chance to meet other people be it through study, sport or other social activities. Since isolation, my days have consisted of hours of note taking and getting to grips with my course, and the nights have consisted of horror movies and FIFA [the Electronic Arts (EA) videogame].

“Even though I love a bit of FIFA career mode, it is not what I expected the first few weeks of my university experience to be, and I have a constant feeling that I should be getting out and exploring a new city, getting to grips with the newfound independence, and getting the chance to become an adult properly.”

Read: How an algorithm to streamline exam grades was a failure for the U.K. government

Tara Kelly*, 20, is a third-year English Literature student at Worcester College, Oxford, and has moved out of the halls of residence into a house with friends.

a person standing on top of a grass covered field: University of Oxford student Tara Kelly has been working from cafes, as library places have been difficult to secure.

© Tara Kelly
University of Oxford student Tara Kelly has been working from cafes, as library places have been difficult to secure.

“Going into my third year at Oxford was always going to be different. Gone were the hectic student antics of first and second year, the last-dash essay crisis. It would be time to knuckle down to work — my degree is completely assessed on work produced in my final year. I had always envisioned that by this point I would be a mature, well-seasoned student, stowing myself away in a library by day and drinking red wine at adult dinner parties by evening. But I could not have foreseen how even this relatively simple vision of domestic life has been utterly changed by the global pandemic.

“Until moving into my student house in the Cowley area of Oxford this September, I had willfully tried not to think about the year to come. Having had the summer term of second year slip by in a strange stasis at home, I was determined to enjoy summer as much as possible, within reasonable limits. Things were looking up; it seemed life was slowly returning to normal. We had received promises from our university that we would certainly be able to return and that we would have face-to-face teaching.

“As we head into winter, however, these assurances are not holding up. Finding a space to work is a big problem. Libraries are ‘open,’ but this means you have to book a three-hour slot weeks in advance. I’ve never been the sort of person who is able to work from my room productively, which means I’ve been sitting in cafes — surely prone to far more contamination than private libraries? — which means spending at least £6 ($8) on coffee a day.

“Perhaps more frustrating is the lack of access to books. Studying for an English degree requires a lot of reading, but I can no longer casually pop into the college library to consult a chapter of criticism on an obscure medieval text.

“Nor has social life gone back to normal. There are no parties; we have heard of students being fined up to £10k for breaching the rules. Pubs are now shutting at 10 p.m. With winter approaching, no one is keen to stay out. It means it is a lot harder to meet new people or to socialize with people outside of your household. Luckily, I am living with eight others and we’ve had some nice dinners, but I’m not sure how it is going to look for the rest of term.

“The pandemic has even changed dating life; in the absence of parties and clubs, people are turning more and more to online dating apps like Hinge and Tinder. The exhilarating freedom of student life can no longer be taken for granted, and we are all adapting, finding new forms of socializing and working.

“Taking on this much collective responsibility at this time of life is a unique, unprecedented challenge, and we are trying to make do the best we can.”

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*The students featured in this piece are related to the authors of this report

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