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Victims or villains? Students have been returning to University halls despite lockdown

Despite clear instructions from the government almost 2,500 freshers at the University of Bristol have returned to university halls during lockdown. Alexander Sampson talks to them about their reasoning and their take on the recent 'roadmap' out of lockdown.

By Alexander Sana Sampson, First Year English Literature

The government rules are clear: don’t go back to University unless you have to. Most teaching has moved online, a cause for uproar around the country, and while the University campus remains largely empty, the same questions reverberate around crowded online settings: ‘What are we paying for? How long will this last? When can we come back?’

And yet, despite clear instructions from the government, first-year students have been trickling back into their University-allocated halls. In a set of statistics broken by Epigram it was revealed that almost 2,500 freshers, have returned to their halls against University advice.

This number represents around 37 percent of the overall number of freshers living in halls, a figure which is estimated to rise above 50 percent in the North Residential Village of Stoke Bishop.

The mainstream media has vilified those who return to University as impatient hedonists: while the rest of the country locks down, students increase the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks thanks to their ‘short-sighted’ and ‘selfish’ return to their University cities. Such labelling fits a narrative forced upon a generation of students who openly lament the so-called best years of their lives being ravaged by an unexpected pandemic.

However, even as this account holds some potency, further nuances are required in truly gauging the reasons of those who have returned. Epigram spoke to a set of anonymous students across Bristol and discovered that behind this unofficial exodus lie the same repeated reasons: mental health, missing the ‘Uni experience’, and an inability to work at home.

Unfortunately, for me, being at home wasn’t an option as it had become quite strenuous on my mental health. I knew that I needed to be back at University and to have my own space and to have the option to socialise. I have the right to be here anyway: I own the room, I pay for it, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be allowed back.’ - Churchill Hall, Stoke Bishop

The ‘right to be back’ forms an important factor in why many students have returned. Alongside ongoing issues surrounding rent for students in halls, freshers are paying for a mix of education and experience. While academic factors form one side of their decision to return, social aspects are equally important:

I felt like I wasn’t working too well at home, and I felt that if I came back to Uni I would work better. Also, I was just getting a bit bored at home, stuck with my family. I thought I’d have a lot more fun with my flat since most of my flat was back.’ Hiatt Baker, Stoke Bishop

Without adequate social interaction, students and the general populous have noted a rise in mental health problems. However, uniquely, University freshers paying for accommodation have a choice: stay at home or go back to their University halls. The latter beckons given the promise of being able to socialise – a booster for one’s mental health and simply more interesting than being at home. Simultaneously, freshers are still paying for their halls and thus the ‘Uni experience’:

I came back to Uni because I am a very extroverted person, so sitting at home in a little village where corona rules are obeyed to a strict degree would not have been good for my own mental health. I have a strong sense of needing action and adventure in my life [so] change and independence are important to me in order to feel fulfilled.’ Orchard Heights, East Residential Village

‘I own the room, I pay for it, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be allowed back.’

Considering that neither the University nor the Government would view boredom or ‘missing out’ as sufficient grounds to return, such students are breaking the law. However, their return is defiant in the face of Government rules:

I’m aware I am breaking [lockdown rules] by being back, and also by socialising, but my view - however self-serving it is - is that students are a very low risk demographic. By only seeing people our own age we gained herd immunity in the first term [from] when pretty much everyone had corona; as long as masks are worn outside and tests are done before returning home the impact is pretty low risk.’ Orchard Heights, East Residential Village

The luxury of choice means the debate on returning centres around a number of overlapping moral, social and mental health issues. However, this narrative is not unanimous: for international students and other groups, some were either not able to leave, or had no choice but to return to their University accommodations:

I really thought we’d be going back to blended teaching by the start of TB2 so I when I left Bristol in December, I didn’t leave prepared. According to the lockdown rules I shouldn’t be back but I consider my return essential travel. There was no way I would’ve been able to learn from an overseas country without any of my textbooks or access to libraries etc.’ Private Accommodation, City Centre

For such students, whose decision to return or to stay was forced, currently living in accommodation is often not a fulfilling experience:

The reality of this is that it gets pretty lonely, pretty quickly. There’s only so many times I can walk around the harbour or Facetime my friends without becoming incredibly overwhelmed and sad by the fact that I can’t socialise with others. Now, things are different and it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.’ Private Accommodation, City Centre

After being contacted for a statement, a University of Bristol spokesperson said: ‘We wrote to students when the current lockdown was announced advising that, if possible, they should stay at home until in-person teaching resumed for their course.

‘There are a number of legitimate reasons why students have already returned, including adverse effects on their mental health and wellbeing and not having adequate facilities or space to study at home.

‘In addition, we know some students decided not to leave for Christmas, opting instead to stay in Bristol, and there are those who are on one of the Government’s exempt courses such as medicine, dentistry and teaching who need to be here in order to carry out the practical requirements of their course.

‘Positive coronavirus case numbers among our student population remain extremely low.’

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The experience of those who have returned, whether by choice or not, now mainly hinges on the government’s ‘road map’ for the removal of lockdown restrictions.

Notably, even as the government’s advice remains vague for all courses not exempt from lockdown parameters, first year students remain hopeful for the future in the light of this announcement:

I think for a lot of people this term, University has been better than any other alternative. Obviously with more things opening up that’s very promising, and I’m optimistic about the summer term – when the sun’s out anything is good.’ Churchill Hall, Stoke Bishop

Do you think students should be able to return to University despite lockdown regulations?

Featured Image: Epigram / Lucy O'Neill