On 1st February 2020, it was confirmed that the first official coronavirus case in the United Kingdom was a student from the University of York – my university. Somewhat embarrassingly, panic did not set in immediately for me and friends. We joked about it, couldn’t believe what was happening as TV crews descended onto our campus, and assured ourselves that we were in the best place if things got bad. After all, the government knew what they were doing, right?
Fast forward a year, the country is stuck in its third national lockdown, and news circulates that it will be lifted (too) soon. We have one of the worst death rates in the world, and the amount of government missteps seems never ending. Hope may be on the horizon with falling daily cases and deaths, increasing vaccinations, but another crisis looms. I remember the dread waking up the day after the European Union Referendum, my hometown of Sunderland the first to declare an overwhelming ‘Leave’ result. Now Brexit has become our reality, the impact of a post-EU life for Britons has only just begun.
So how have these issues impacted students? COVID and Brexit certainly negatively impacted my own mental health and studies, and the feeling is mutual among my close friends. We’re worried about the future, and angry at the government’s response thus far. We may not have suffered the most out of the UK population, but there is certainly a growing sentiment of anger and frustration brewing at higher education institutions across the country.
COVID & Students
According to a survey I conducted among 34 students, COVID negatively impacted 97.1% of respondents’ studies, and 91.2% of respondents’ mental wellbeing. Additionally, 88.2% are worried about how COVID will impact them in the future.
These results are clear, and I imagine are reflected across the national student population. Students also shared specific experiences of exactly how COVID has impacted their studies. The most obvious change was the switch to online learning, something most students had never experienced before, and had to adjust to quickly. Livia (aged 21) shared that this significantly impacted her studies, led to her not feeling part of the university, and that Zoom is simply ‘no substitute for seminars or lectures’. Livia’s experience is no isolated incidence – respondents Sarah (19), Ella (23), Caitlin (21), Phoebe (22), and Thomas (28) among others all reiterated her feelings. Of course, Zoom university is necessary, but after a year the switch has not stuck, and it has not gotten any easier. Especially when tuition fees have not been reduced at all, the expectation for pre-pandemic performance without access to pre-pandemic facilities is a staggering feat.
Unis Get the Blame
The way that the government has dealt with students has been, well, non-existent. 100% of respondents to the survey indicated that the government had not considered the needs of students in the past year.
It’s true, watch any of the (sometimes daily) coronavirus press briefings, and the government rarely (if ever) mention university students. I was certainly confused when I was back home, and a third lockdown was announced on 4th January 2021. Not a single mention of whether universities could remain open or if I could return. Universities were left to sift through unclear government advice affecting 2.38 million students.
“Students […] certainly feel as though the government have treated them as easy ‘scapegoats’, absolving themselves of blame.”
Focus on younger school-aged children has left university students ignored and feeling neglected. Then, as Sarah (22), Livia (21), Eleanor (24), Caitlin (21), and Rosie (22) mention, students were blamed for rising cases in the Autumn. Lack of financial or mental wellbeing support for students up until this point was bad enough, blaming students for government incompetence was even worse. This all despite the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies finding students were not to blame. But students such as Rosie (22), Livia (21) and Eleanor (24) certainly feel as though the government have treated them as easy ‘scapegoats’, absolving themselves of blame.
Mental Health Crisis Looms
Lockdowns are needed, restrictions are needed, of course. But a preventative rather than reactive approach to COVID would have saved tens of thousands of lives and protected students’ mental wellbeing and their studies. 91.2% of respondents indicated that their mental health was affected by COVID, and several shared specific experiences of worsening mental wellbeing throughout the pandemic.
To be clear, I am not implying that restrictions should be ignored in favour of mental health. Rather, that the looming mental health crisis, especially among younger people, is an unavoidable consequence of government measures that with better earlier reaction would have been avoidable.
Failing to save lives and the economy
Students also feel disconnected from a government who time and time again have prioritised the economy over lives. An economy which, in a report from 12th February, shrank 9.9% in the ‘worst year on record’. If you haven’t heard the UK Government’s many three-point slogans, don’t worry, they didn’t work. Turns out that saying ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.’ doesn’t protect the NHS or save lives when you implement restrictions months late, miss COBRA meetings, and have a top advisor who travelled 260 miles, then another 25 miles, 25 miles again, then another 260 miles while infected with COVID.
Ella (23) believes the government ‘always…prioritised the economy’ and took ‘unnecessary’ risks that never paid off, a sentiment shared by Sarah (22), and Joe (22). It’s hard enough when your government mess up and get things wrong, but even harder when it feels like it was done intentionally.
Another point of anger among students is the handling (or, mishandling) of government contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) and Test & Trace. Respondents such as Sarah (22), Caitlin (21), Adam (22) all commented on their thoughts about corruption in the ‘bidding’ process for these contracts. This is a particularly disastrous example of government incompetence and prioritising of the economy as well as favouring friends when PPE arrived out of date or too late, and Test & Trace failed to work. To top it all off, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has broken the law regarding the failure to disclose information on contracts.
Up to the Unis?
Universities occupy a precarious position in terms of handling of COVID. They’re private, rich, higher education institutions. They have the resources and money to control COVID, right? That’s certainly what the UK government appears to think. So, what happens when 130 universities get to control how they deal with COVID? Well, you get huge disparities of results and experiences.
To an extent, universities fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education and their own ‘Tier’ system of restrictions that can differ slightly from national government advice. But each university must also implement their own COVID strategy and rules on campus and in accommodation. This is a ‘burden’ which Caitlin (21) acknowledges is down to universities and not necessarily all the government’s responsibility.
As an example, the University of York has a dedicated website that’s easy to navigate and clearly communicates the rules, restrictions, and procedures. On campus, there is now free rapid testing available, food vouchers and money for isolating students, wellbeing support, ‘safety nets’ for grades, and most campus buildings/study spaces remain open despite fully-online learning.
But this experience is not the same everywhere, and it has taken a year to get to this point. Take the University of Manchester. On the 5th November 2020, students in Fallowfield first-year accommodation were put in lockdown and security fences were put up so they could not leave their blocks. The need to stops the spread among students may be clear, but such a blatant disrespect for student’s mental wellbeing, or frankly their freedom, shows how bad it is when universities get it wrong.
Laura (22) commented that the disparities meant there was an ‘unfair advantage’ for those universities allowing safety nets, and Annabelle (21) and Rosie (22) believed their universities’ communication was slow. Additionally, Sofya (21), Joe (22), and Rahul (21) all commented that lecturers were not providing adequate support for students. On the other hand, though, Ellie (21) shared that she in fact got better support with her dissertation and had better access to lecturers’ student hours online. Clearly, it’s quite a potluck whether a student’s university addresses COVID well or not.
It still remains unclear how long students, and the UK government will need to deal with COVID. One would hope that we are nearing the end of an all-too difficult and frustrating journey. Personally, I’m ashamed of myself for thinking that the government knew what they were doing. Ashamed that I really believed it would only last a few weeks or months. It’s upsetting to look back on the lost memories, experiences, and the damage I’ve endured because of this. Some of it unavoidable, but much of the blame surely lies in the hands of the government.
“Lost opportunities and plans are just another part of the COVID collateral damage left to reckon with.”
Many students had their plans and jobs seriously derailed due to COVID, and opportunities lost, including myself. I was offered a master’s course place in Vienna but left unconfident and unable to accept it. Similarly, Caitlin (21) had her year abroad place cancelled, left scrambling to find an alternative plan for the 2020/2021 academic year. Amber (22) also lost several jobs due to the pandemic. This is something, one thing, that the government or universities are not to blame for. Lost opportunities and plans are just another part of the COVID collateral damage left to reckon with. That’s one aspect of the COVID crisis has shared with Brexit.
As if a pandemic and incompetent government wasn’t enough for students to deal with, working out how to leave the EU at the hands of the same incompetent government is another worry. Most students surveyed were not old enough to vote at the time of the referendum in 2016, but as they enter the jobs market, they’re certainly one of the groups to be most seriously impacted by it.
In the survey, only 23.5% of students indicated that Brexit has affected their studies so far, 52.9% that it impacted their mental wellbeing, and 85.3% said they are worried about how it will affect them in the future. Additionally, 94.1% believe the government handled Brexit badly. Clearly, this shows that so far Brexit has not been detrimental for the majority of students, but they believe it will get worse.
The Worst is Yet to Come
The United Kingdom has only been out of the European Union since 1st January 2020. So far, there have been food shortages and supply issues, but that is just the start. Queues of lorries facing border trouble in Kent last December, due to the newest COVID variant, seemed a taster of the issues yet to come. For some students, their first taste of post-EU life has already happened.
For example, Asiyah (21) has found less opportunities for working in Europe, ‘awful’ considering she has studied languages for four years. Additionally, Amber (22) has abandoned plans for a PhD in Paris. Other respondents, such as Livia (21), Nisreen (23), Sarah (19), Ella (23), Joe (22), Rahul (21), Thomas (28) all expressed feelings of lost opportunities.
A direct example of difficulty since January was from Adam (22), working in France as part of his master’s year in industry. He found it harder to get back to France after Christmas, needing proof of address and study, and a visa for his research project, that he had been working on since September. If these are the issues and feelings less than two months into an ‘independent’ Britain, it is worrying to think of how much more will follow.
It is no secret that negotiations between Britain and the EU did not go to plan. Boris Johnson’s ‘oven-ready deal’ was not oven-ready at all, as Sarah (22) commented. It seemed as though there was little consideration for the complicated nature of the Northern Irish border issues, as well as fishing and trade. What resulted was a deal that appears devoid of any positives (but at least we get stamps on our passports now!).
Something that directly impacts students is Erasmus. Perhaps one of the best parts of EU membership for young people, especially those studying a language. With Brexit, Britain is leaving the scheme, and therefore students have fewer opportunities for travel and to enrich their studies. Joe (22) mentioned that this will impact any postgraduate study they undertake in the UK.
As Kayleigh (22) added, the deal should have been handled more decisively and with greater urgency – not left until the final hours for a deal to be struck.
Above all, the mood among young people in the UK is one of feeling disconnected with the government and general population. With the ‘Leave’ campaign being found guilty of breaking electoral law, it undermines the whole validity of the vote. Similarly, London has lost its title of top share trading hub. The percentage of EU students applying to British universities is also down. It’s hard to see the positives.
Respondents such as Sarah (22) feels ‘fed up with it all’, and Ella (23) feels a sense of ‘betrayal’. Especially when so many students couldn’t vote in 2016, the disconnect is clear.
The links between COVID and Brexit may not be obvious, but they have come to characterise the UK in 2020. Both will impact the country in 2021 and possibly in years to come – certainly in the case of Brexit. Looking back, this tweet from Boris Johnson on 2nd January 2020 is almost comical:
This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain. pic.twitter.com/dLQUVauCKg
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) January 2, 2020
Was he to know of the chaos and heartbreak yet to come? Maybe not, but he certainly should have known how to deal with it. As the students affected move into adulthood and working life, they will be further impacted by the mistakes of government policies relating to COVID and Brexit.
Disclaimer: The survey used as research for this article was completed independently by 34 individuals, all who were/are students during the COVID pandemic. Some I know personally, others I do not, or have remained anonymous. Students are not the worst impacted group – disabled people, people of colour, the clinically vulnerable, NHS and care workers, refugees, to name a few, cannot be ignored. Respondents’ views may not always reflect my own, or all students, but I hope this provides an important insight to their perspective on these two issues. If you want to read more about the issues of COVID and Brexit in the UK, and read the responses in full, please take a look at the Google Sheets document here.
[Title Image by Étienne Godiard via Unsplash]