How Covid-19 Ruined a Generation of Young Academics.

It is no secret that the education system has been unfairly battered by the hurricane of Covid-19 in the UK. Just as children were pulled from schooling in late March and sentenced to months of home teaching by parents already struggling to adapt to working from home, their return to school in September has not been smooth sailing either. I’ve heard firsthand the terrible hoops parents and pupils must jump through when a suspected Covid-19 case is flagged up and all class members are sent back home for two weeks of isolation, wreaking havoc on parent’s work schedules and disrupting weeks worth of education.

But it is not just school-age students that have had their studies put through the mangle; university students appear to have been largely relegated to the background of the Government’s attention. In August, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and many university institutions encouraged students to start their courses in September as planned and sign onto expensive accommodation contracts despite the continuing coronavirus pandemic. With many young people being forced into accomodation lockdowns and endless cycles of self isolation, it’s no surprise that multiple student suicides have occurred since the beginning of term up and down the UK with the complete lack of compassion shown towards young people in regards to their university experience. Despite numerous petitions and Government debates, no plans to reduce university fees have been made and many students have been left feeling extremely frustrated and unmotivated. It is unfair that we are still expected to fork out the full £9,250 of tuition fees for an immensely compromised course delivery. We cannot access physical texts from the library, we cannot have that important face to face contact with our peers and teachers, we cannot enter our labs to carry out critical practical work. 

On the first of October, I posted on my blog and spoke of my exasperation at completing the final semester of second year from my bedroom. I felt a burning injustice that my neat and fruitful University of Sheffield life had come to a grinding halt. My dedication to my studies remained but my passions waned. I would sit for hours at my bedroom desk in my dressing gown and dutifully wade through pages of reading, typing out finals essays at a breakneck speed just to get them finished and submitted. Going from being able to sit meditatively in the library to being trapped in my bedroom created complex mental associations within my home. The room where I slept and previously relaxed became a space of arduous studying instead. I struggled to work with the boundaries of home/study and never felt like I could fully switch on or switch off. I became trapped in a limbo of learning and unwinding in the same room; I constantly felt guilty when I wasn’t working and often struggled to fully engage with classwork when I was.

Over summer, we expected our university lives to return to some form of normality come the beginning of the autumn semester. Unfortunately, the worrying increase of Covid-19 cases off the back of a few months of moderately relaxed restrictions shot this down with ease. At the University of Sheffield, classes have been chopped and changed from in person, to online, to in person again. Currently there is no undergraduate access to the library and the majority of teaching remains online. The very few classes that are in person (I have one to two hours a week) consist of eight students spread out 5m plus from each other and masked up. Even if I can turn to the person seated next to me (and by next, I mean about six seats away from them) the combination of thick facemasks and distance means I can’t really hear them for an effective discussion anyway.

I’ve just started my third and final year of English Language and Literature which is, luckily for me, a course that’s relatively easy to adapt to an online form. However, as of now, I am unable to access any of my books and have to read hundreds of pages worth on a pdf file.  This, combined with fully digital lectures and class calls, means I am sat at my desk for hours on end.  As someone who already has to wear glasses to prevent eye strain, I go to bed most nights with throbbing headaches and sore muscles because I am hunched over my desk from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. 

I’m still very dedicated to my learning, but I often feel like I am doing it to fill the void of life in a Covid-19 landscape. My motivation has not suffered too badly but my love for my subject, and indeed the university lifestyle, has taken a heavy blow. I carry out a lot of my tasks out of sheer obligation, because I’ve paid this much money, because I’m on the homestretch of final year, because we’ve now all been plunged into a national lockdown and there’s quite frankly nothing else to do but work and get it over and done with. It allows me to cling onto a shred of how I lived pre-pandemic. University has truly been shattered as an idea for me, and I have now simply adopted the attitude of getting it done and graduating – the ‘Grind and Get Out’ mentality.

I reached out to other students of all levels of study, from both Sheffield universities and others, to find how Covid-19 has affected their studies, motivation and its impact on their mental wellbeing.

Liam is a creative writing PhD student studying in Swansea, and spoke of the immense anxiety he felt about being on campus, leaving him unable to pick up his student ID or any of the physical texts he has requested. He also added, ‘the general hopelessness and never-ending despair’ he was experiencing from the ongoing disruptions to his studying left him feeling understandably uncreative – a mindset obviously detrimental to a creativity heavy doctoral programme.

Hannah, currently studying Psychology and Neuroscience in Nottingham, shared much of the same attitudes as me. Having always viewed herself as a very driven individual, the switch to online tuition ‘Just doesn’t feel like Uni for me at all. I feel completely detached from my uni because I have hardly any contact with anyone, and it’s hard to motivate yourself to do the work when all I’m getting from my lecturers are powerpoint slides’ There is a great feeling of abandonment felt by many students, seeing tutors and lecturers only through a screen. The remoteness of online tutoring isolates the individual from their institutions, creating much frustration when tackling challenging work loads in a very solitary and unsupported environment. With the regular grind of timetabled days on campus a distant memory, it is difficult to remember you’re even part of an institution with no access to library spaces or meaningful interpersonal connections with peers and mentors. Charlie, a final year politics student in Plymouth, told me of his rather unexpected attitude; he had found that his current motivation was a lot higher than it had been at any point last year and he was far more productive – however, like me, he also used rigorous studying as a coping mechanism for the current environment, stating that he has thrown himself into his degree because he had ‘exhausted everything I find enjoyable but also because doing uni work is a return to some semblance of normality.’

As expected, coronavirus has been intersectional in the ways it has damaged our lives and routines. Becca, who works part time in a pub in order to fund her masters degree in Sheffield, spoke very candidly about how Coronavirus had affected many aspects of her life; with the pandemic having a ruinous effect on the hospitality industry, she is now suffering repetitive cycles of anxiety and depression as a result of the financial difficulty she has faced from the service industry crisis. She is now battling major mental health issues and finding it difficult to concentrate on her degree whilst also working as many hours as she can to stay financially stable.

But it is not just UK based students that have faced struggles. Language students who were out of the country on their year abroad at the beginning of this year and those hoping to move out of the UK this September have had their plans completely contorted. Izzy, who was living in Japan for the latter half of last year, had returned on a scheduled trip home after several months overseas just before the gaping jaws of the global Coronavirus crisis sunk its teeth into the UK. Within weeks, it became clear that she would be unable to return to Japan to complete the second semester of her studies, leaving friends and belongings behind on the other side of the world. Though she was disappointed that she did not experience the entirety of her scheduled year, she said she was relieved that she was already in the UK before quarantining and lockdown rules came into play. However, she was quick to tell me that having her time abroad unexpectedly halved had not aided her in her further Japanese language acquisition.

Lucy and Aidan, Sheffield students who were both due to start their years abroad in Switzerland and the Czech Republic respectively have both chosen to defer a year and take a leave of absence away from studying all together. Lucy wanted the best experience possible from her time away and told me, “I didn’t want my most formative year of my modern languages degree to be spent online or without meeting new people”. She also spoke of her anxieties about the loneliness she would feel being unable to mix with new people and that in the current global climate, “I didn’t see any benefits in it, only setbacks”. Aidan also felt similarly; that it seemed futile and unsafe going abroad at the moment. In his time away from studying he has worked full time and is enjoying the freedom that allows him to pursue his hobbies. “The longer time I spend away from the classroom,” he told me “The less I wish to return to it.” His motivation for studying had dwindled to the point of removing himself academia entirely and he is very doubtful that he will ever return.

Finally, I spoke to Charlotte, who did choose to take her optional year abroad to Uppsala University in Sweden to continue her Law degree with the University of Lancaster. Sweden appears to have dealt with the Coronavirus pandemic far better than many other European countries and now has fewer restrictions, however, after six months of no academic contact, Charlotte found readjusting to studying and focusing on her work was a shock to her system. Now, her classes are starting to move online again and she is missing out on her critical ‘level of discussion that can only be reached in a classroom’ but also admits that the standard of online teaching she has in Uppsala is far superior to that she experienced back in Lancaster.

Coronavirus has twisted and warped so many aspects of our lives. It has irrevocably maimed the determination, aspirations and motivations of a generation of students, and we can only hope that the sacrifices made by people young and old will situate Britain closer to the utopia of a post-Coronavirus landscape.

You can find more from Emily on her blog: https://efinan7.wixsite.com/website

Emily Finan

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