The Fresher Experience During The Pandemic
Kate Charlton and Antony Haslam explore the Fresher experience at Edinburgh University and the surrounding public rhetoric concerning students during the pandemic.
COVID’s second wave, which tore through the country in the Autumn, has been marked by frustration and anxiety from the general public - not only at the state of escalation but also at the government for their ineffectual handling of the situation. This anger from the public has not only been projected onto appropriate authorities but has also found its way onto the heads of our student population, with media and online outlets pointing the finger at students returning to universities in September as causing the rise in cases. In a time that is just as uncertain for students as it has been the wider population, it is our view that students have found themselves on the receiving end of, particularly harsh and undue criticism. Seeing the backlash one Edinburgh University fresher received under an Edinburgh Live Facebook post, we thought it was necessary to look further into why students have been blamed, and more importantly, gain their direct perspective.
We don’t deny that the movement of vast numbers of students across the country, into the close quarters of student accommodation, contributed to a rise in cases nationwide. However, it is the rhetoric surrounding who’s to blame for the wave, that we take issue with; the rhetoric that seems to scapegoat students, shirking blame from the universities and government who encouraged the movement of students to their university cities.
We reached out to the first-year who received the harsh comments under the Edinburgh Live Facebook post after she posted a TikTok criticising the way freshers have been treated. She was branded as showcasing “absolutely disgraceful behaviour” with “only [herself] to blame”, making the general sentiment clear that students are the culprits, rather than victims, of the pandemic. When we asked Tizzie how she felt after reading those comments, she stated that she was “extremely disappointed” by them, that they played into the narrative of scapegoating students as it’s the “easy” thing to do.
She was branded as showcasing “absolutely disgraceful behaviour” with “only [herself] to blame”, making the general sentiment clear that students are the culprits, rather than victims, of the pandemic.
What’s interesting about the responses beneath the article, is the fact that students are often viewed as a voiceless demographic, they are expected to be seen and not heard. As soon as they speak up and dare to criticise authority, they are met with contempt and are not treated by the public as equals with the right to speak up (like @woodstevie’s Tweet, referring to the EL article: “For fuck’s sake you bunch of snowflakes, the reason we are in this mess is because people can't take 3 months out of their life to try and combat this virus... Selfish attitudes”). Students, as Tizzie argued, are often the ‘easy’ demographic to blame, a third-party option to avoid direct criticism of the government or university; “both [government and the university] are in the wrong, you can’t blame one or the other, so it’s easy to find a middle ground and blame the students, it was inevitable students were going to be blamed”. Tizzie came across as somewhat defeated, as though she and many students feel resigned to accept that this is how they’ll be treated and there’s nothing that can be done to change it. This encouraged us to gather a selection of first-year students from different Edinburgh University halls, who we asked the same questions, to gauge opinions on university social life, teaching and provision of mental health support.
@woodstevie’s Tweet, referring to the EL article: “For fuck’s sake you bunch of snowflakes, the reason we are in this mess is because people can't take 3 months out of their life to try and combat this virus... Selfish attitudes”
In what has undoubtedly been a challenging year for everyone’s mental health, students have perhaps been uniquely vulnerable to issues of isolation, anxiety and depression. This is true of all students who are confronting these issues away from home, regardless of their year of study. However, it’s freshers who are potentially experiencing this separation for the first time.
This has, quite rightly, been documented in the mainstream media, but it feels to us that this discussion is likely too little, too late. This is tragically true for Finn Kitson, the 19-year-old first-year student at Manchester, who was found dead at his Fallowfield accommodation in October. His father, Micheal Kitson, was quick to point out on Twitter that “if you lockdown young people because of COVID-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety”. It is clear that Finn’s father is in no doubt about the role Fallowfield’s student lockdown played in his son’s death, yet this is just one tragic outcome of inadequate student support.
“if you lockdown young people because of COVID-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety”.
The freshers that we spoke to in Edinburgh were, across the board, highly critical of the University’s provision of support this semester. One student living in Pollock stated that “we’ve been left to do everything alone, there has been absolutely nothing [support wise] … you don’t see anyone [wardens, support staff etc]; it’s only security and police walking around”. This kind of intimidating presence of authority, in place of something welcoming, undeniably causes anxiety for students who are, potentially, living away from home for the first time. At a time when students are already isolated from help, seeing security and police patrolling their accommodation has left freshers feeling like prisoners, in what is supposed to be their term-time home.
One comment under the EL article went so far as to suggest that students deserve to be treated like this, “they really should be locked there for years till they learn something 😁”. Student frustration at being treated like inmates in the accommodation they’re paying for was never more apparent than in the student protests that followed the fencing-off of parts of Fallowfield accommodation in Manchester, which saw students holding signs saying: “HMP Fallowfield: £9K To Enter”.
“HMP Fallowfield: £9K To Enter”.
Our discussions with freshers in Edinburgh, alongside the protests at Manchester, suggest that this sentiment is widespread; students feel trapped and isolated, having obvious effects on mental health. This becomes yet more of an issue when paired with up to a three-week wait to see a university counsellor in Edinburgh. One student pointed out that, “because we’ve had so little support from the uni, we’ve become better at supporting ourselves and looking out for each other”. A small consolation for freshers that have otherwise been left out to dry. We wanted to explore what led to this feeling, asking what the first-years thought more generally about the University’s handling of the movement of students into Edinburgh in September.
One student pointed out that, “because we’ve had so little support from the uni, we’ve become better at supporting ourselves and looking out for each other”.
When pushed on whether they thought the University had handled the movement of students to Edinburgh well (and what could have been done better), a theme started to emerge. The recurring answer argued that the University placed great emphasis on so-called ‘hybrid learning’. This was the case for many students, ourselves included, with the University suggesting that we would be expected to be present on campus for a ‘blend’ of in-person and online teaching. The students we spoke to collectively agreed that the University had encouraged them to travel to the city for studies, therefore paying rent on their accommodations. The cynic may argue that this was essentially tricking students into moving to Edinburgh, despite the inevitable second wave. One student commented that she felt like “the university pranked [them] with the promise of hybrid learning, but as soon as [they] got here everything was online.” and that they “feel used for money”. Another commented that “the university made such an effort to persuade us that we would get the full experience, that they had prepared everything for us, but in reality, they just wanted our rent money”. This supports our argument that the University is, in fact, more responsible than they would like to admit for Autumn’s rise in COVID cases. They encouraged the movement of students across the country, but when there came an inevitable rise in cases, their role was conveniently forgotten and students and their socialising shouldered the blame.
One student commented that she felt like “the university pranked [them] with the promise of hybrid learning, but as soon as [they] got here everything was online.”
Once students had arrived in Edinburgh, it wasn’t just the unexpected lack of face-to-face teaching that caused unease, but also the challenge of socialising. Moving to university and making new friends, at its best already a nerve-wracking and unfamiliar experience, was made extra challenging by the pandemic. The students we spoke to were asked to reflect on how their university social lives had been affected. Aside from the social distancing measures that have affected all our social lives, they outlined other difficulties faced in their particular situation as first-years, living in halls. A range of opinions was offered, with one student arguing that they’d had a lot of fun, but that it may have been because they were “lucky” with who, and how many, they had in their social bubbles. One response that repeatedly cropped up was that students who knew people before coming to university had a massive advantage in being able to socialise and that students tended to stick with who they already knew, as it wasn’t easy making friends outside of their flat. They commented, “the real advantage that those who came from huge boarding schools have is coming knowing loads of people, that’s the only real advantage … it certainly makes it easier.”
The wide range in responses concerning the different experiences of freshers’ this year invited us to delve deeper into how, and why, such a variation occurred. There was a benefit for people who knew each other before university, and it’s undeniable that Pollock has been known to be cliquey amongst private school students, who were friendly before coming to Edinburgh. One interesting factor, which has been overlooked, is that the accommodation that students were allocated resulted in differing chances of socialising, due to the number of people in their flat. Salisbury Court, for example, consists of flats of between eight and ten students, which allows those living there to form social bubbles of up to eight, while still complying with Scottish guidelines. On the other hand, Robertson’s Close (a significantly cheaper accommodation) consists of flats of four. One student that we spoke to who lives there, told us how they aren’t allowed to form a bubble with another flat, even though that would give them an equal footing with other students in bigger flats in Salisbury and Pollock. When asked whether there was unfairness to how accommodations affected students, responses we got included; “100%, smaller flats in different accommodations [than Pollock] without larger social areas will have found it harder” from one student, and “I live in a three-person flat, so that has limited who I meet”, from another.
In Pollock, the JMCC would usually be a social hub, but this year its arrangement saw students sitting alone, spaced apart at individual desks. Although, as one student points out, “at restaurants and bars you’re allowed tables of 6, yet in the JMCC it’s the whole exam hall set-up; we can’t even face each other”. Pollock’s strict meal-time regime seems far removed from the experience in self-catered flats, which aren’t subject to the same policing. One student admitted that the format of the JMCC makes him less likely to eat there; instead preferring to eat a ready-meal or order a takeaway, allowing him to be with his friends. There is a level of irony here in that the regulation of the JMCC, which is intended to stop social mixing, maybe promoting eating in groups in students’ rooms. The student went on to point out that he realises that this is not particularly healthy, nor economical, but that for other students who feel too nervous to eat alone, they may have little choice.
A couple of students who we spoke to raised the point that coming from a wealthier background improved their opportunity to socialise. One student commented that, in her experience, “the fear of fines controls your social life. I have had to turn down a lot of social events just because I didn’t want to get fined and couldn’t afford it. People who can afford that, however, can attend and meet people.” Although we aren’t condoning going against the guidelines, it’s clear how unfair it is that some students have to sit back and watch their peers be able to break the rules and enjoy themselves without fear of repercussion, without being afforded that same option.
One student commented that, in her experience, “the fear of fines controls your social life. I have had to turn down a lot of social events just because I didn’t want to get fined and couldn’t afford it. People who can afford that, however, can attend and meet people.”
The restrictions on socialising and gathering in halls saw several students opting to rent Airbnbs in Edinburgh to avoid the worst periods of 'lockdown'. This was seen particularly in October, with entire houses in Pollock facing restrictions. Many of those who could afford the costly move, something far out of the reach of most students, were able to dodge the worst of the isolation and continue to socialise; “The renting of AirBnbs has allowed wealthier students to socialise and avoid the constraints of Uni accommodation. This meant less wealthy students were left alone, and even more isolated in student accommodation.” These students shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to get away from halls, given the nature of their experience in the first semester, and we aren’t criticising them for this. Rather, we are attempting to provide an alternate view on student behaviours in response to their treatment by the University. Instead of blaming these students for their choices and feeding into the rhetoric of scapegoating the entire student body, this needs to be viewed in its context. Their choices need to be considered against the backdrop of having been failed by the government, as well as let down by their University, resigning students to taking matters into their own hands.
We hope that any first-years reading this article have found solace in the experiences that we have described. If you are a fresher who has at all felt isolated, or maybe felt as though you are alone in your experiences, then hopefully reading what other first-years have said has provided you with some comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone in any struggles you are facing. Finally, we want to emphasise that whatever emotions you feel towards the University or your situation, are completely valid; you have every right to be angry and disappointed at the unfair hand you’ve been dealt. These are the feelings that have fuelled the wave of student activism currently sweeping across the UK, breeding real changes for students: rent rebates, no-detriment policies and petitions to see fees cut.
1. The University’s online counselling service (via Teams): https://www.ed.ac.uk/student-counselling
2. 24/7 online community support for student mental health: https://togetherall.com/en-gb/
Click on ‘register’ → ‘I’m from a university or college’ → enter uni name + submit
3. Feeling Good App: https://www.nhs.uk/apps-library/feeling-good-positive-mindset/
Provides students with a free programme aiming to alleviate stress and anxiety through a set of curated exercises
My in-app login username = edinuni1. My in-app password = positive
Student Coronavirus Guidance
Scottish Government website: https://www.studentinformation.gov.scot/coronavirus
No-detriment policy petition for Edinburgh: https://www.change.org/p/university-of-edinburgh-reinstate-the-no-detriment-policy-for-final-year-students-at-the-university-of-edinburgh?redirect=false
Kate Charlton and Antony Haslam are students at the University of Edinburgh. This article was written before the current lockdown restrictions.