As a university student I often find myself procrastinating, I was rather curious about the local perception of the return of students to Exeter. It was disturbing but unsurprising – and it didn’t help with comments from locals on media articles describing us as being “little turds”, “feral” and calling for us to be locked up.
This, frankly, couldn’t be further from the truth; this pandemic is not only a killer but is also creating intergenerational tensions that have never existed before (as we discuss in our seminar, Does Politics Discriminate Against The Young? tonight).
Since returning to university, I can say that the biggest concern amongst students isn’t getting Covid-19 itself; our main worry is spreading the virus to the community. Despite my university at one point contributing to 80 per cent of covid-19 cases in Exeter, there is zero evidence that students spread the virus to the wider community in any significant way.
Students did not choose to return to university; we were forced to do so. Through tuition fees and tenancy agreements, we have returned to find ourselves paying the same fees for a totally different service to what we received in the previous year.
I admit I am one of the lucky ones, I have a wonderful house with very good friends and a wide network of people I met through my first year. But my heart breaks for those first-year students, stuck in halls, isolated and unable to meet new people or make the most of what should be the best years of their lives.
In the first eight weeks of this university term, eight students died across the UK. We are currently even seeing reports of metal fences being put up around university halls in Manchester to stop the free movement of students, despite one of their students committing suicide a few weeks ago.
The University of Manchester insists this move was to protect students and to their credit have agreed to take the fences down and apologised “for the concern and distress caused”.
Students are customers of a service of education and accommodation and there is no way that this ever should be acceptable. I am deeply worried about the impact these restrictions will have on my peers’ mental health.
Since 28 September, students at my university were banned from mixing households. I was so insulted that I, as an adult, could not be trusted to make my own sensible decisions. It was a short-term move to appease the DevonLive armchair commentators, which I would argue is the fundamental flaw in these restrictions and a damning indictment of our current philosophy in rule-making and problem-solving.
It is currently illegal for us to return to our homes and families, and whilst I recognise this rule may slow the spread of coronavirus to a small degree, I would argue the risk to students’ mental health will have a greater impact. At best, this rule will be ignored and thus undermine compliance of these new restrictions. At worst, young lives will be lost.
This term has possibly been one the strangest of my life, and the next month of lockdown will probably be the toughest of my life, as it will be for hundreds of thousands of other students across the country.
With regards to mental health support, there has been too little, too late. We have to recognise there will be more student deaths this year, not from coronavirus but from the mental health impacts of the restrictions placed on students. We should not have to ask: how many more students will commit suicide this year? But that is the situation that we are in.
In March, many of us gladly sacrificed our freedoms to protect older generations. That was absolutely the right thing to do. Something clearly needs to be done to fight the rising transmission of coronavirus, but we should not enter into a second and very harmful second national lockdown. Worst of all, the government has not provided any kind of impact assessment, so there is no way of knowing whether these measures really are justified.
As I am a proud leader of a youth organisation with over 60 volunteers across the country, I will not stand idly by. I will do everything I can to support my wonderful team’s mental wellbeing and I would absolutely take an impact on our performance in the short term in order to support our team through the next phase of this awful pandemic.
We have already hosted a roundtable for our volunteers and have developed a roadmap to support our team in the short, medium, and long term.
As for the mental health crisis across the whole country, we must exempt travel for all students to return home on the condition of a negative covid-19 test result. The government must also make it explicitly clear that the “harm exemption” to the lockdown restrictions applies to mental health crises and encourage students to travel home if they need to.
And the government should urgently look at the discrepancies in the current restrictions: it is unfair and potentially damaging to shut sports facilities and shared spaces, all while keeping music facilities open. And finally, as a goodwill gesture, we should refund 20 per cent of fees for students this year, to account for the impact on our learning this year.
There has been a lot of talk about the importance of mental health from the government. My one wish is that this materialises into action.
If you’re struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, there is help available:
Or talk to a friend, a family member, a teacher, or a colleague. Don’t suffer in silence.