At MMU (Manchester Metropolitan University), 1,700 students have been told to quarantine for a fortnight – their halls patrolled by policemen and security guards. No one is allowed in or out. MMU students say they were given no warning; they did not know their halls of accommodation were being locked down until they looked out of the window and saw security “closing in”. Most of them found out they had been locked in “through a group chat”, said one student at MMU. “We are not even allowed to go out for daily exercise or to the shops, unlike during the national lockdown”. Worse still, there is no definite end in sight. As another student points out, “after these two weeks have finished, there’s still going to be people who are positive with Covid and it’s still going to be spreading … This could be going on for four weeks, six weeks, we just don’t know”.
An idle mind is the devil’s playground and this enforced inertia and isolation is asking for trouble.
Some isolating students have put up signs in their windows reading: “students not criminals”, “help us, send beer” and “refund (question mark sad face)”. Humorous but also eery – especially when you find out some of these sign-making students have been threatened with police action for refusing to take down their window protests. One law firm, Levins Solicitors, has been in touch, via social media platform Twitter, with the students at MMU looking to question the legality of this lockdown: “To the MMU students at Birley campus and Cambridge halls: get in touch and we will do our best to help, pro bono.”
For the first-year students at other universities which have not (yet) been locked down, the situation remains pretty grim. 18 year-olds across the country have moved hundreds of miles from home to sit quietly in small rooms, facing days and days of empty time, required by security guards to be as anti-social and as lonely as possible. They are each designated five friends and if they don’t like them, if they get caught trying to make different friends- with, for example, their upstairs neighbour – they can face fines of up to £800. They also risk having their course terminated.
The accommodation manager at the University of Birmingham emailed first-year students warning them that “anyone found to be part of a gathering of more than six people, or visiting a flat other than their own, will automatically be referred to the university’s conduct process, which could ultimately result in their permanent withdrawal from the university. They will also be instructed to leave their accommodation with immediate effect.” According to one student at the University of Bristol, the threat of these fines (which ask for more than 50% of a student’s termly budget) combined with the threat of expulsion means students are generally playing by the rules. “I have one friend in Leeds. There were 15 of them in his kitchen. Within five minutes, security arrived and each of them was fined £100”.
There are no longer any extra-curricular activities to join; there are no lecture halls to go to; no professors to meet (in person!); there is no reason for a student to get dressed in the morning.
There are no longer any extra-curricular activities to join; there are no lecture halls to go to; no professors to meet (in person!); there is no reason for a student to get dressed in the morning. The only activity they have to fill their time is to turn on their computer – probably no more than once a day for 50 minutes (if they are a Bachelor of Arts student, that is) – to listen to a faceless voice. If they’re lucky, they might get a PowerPoint presentation too but it really does beg the question, why not download the lecturers’ PhD or book, move to Barbados (or Mars) and read it while drinking a piña colada? That still wouldn’t cost anywhere near £9000.
An idle mind is the devil’s playground and this enforced inertia and isolation is asking for trouble. The shocking rates of suicide among students in regular pre-virus times ought to have taught us something about how fragile a student can be, how daunting university is. (The student suicide rate in England and Wales between July 2016 and July 17, was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students, which is one death every four days). Many cannot sympathise with these quarantined students; can’t or won’t see the difference between isolating at home with wife or husband or children and being only eighteen years old, entirely alone in a small room in a strange city with the prospect of staying there, every freedom curtailed, until after Christmas. Unlike adults, students have not had years to practise the art of filling the hours in a day. With so little purpose and distraction available; with “friend-making” now a morally-reprehensible or even financially-bankrupting activity, all that is left for a lonely, homesick student hundreds of miles from home is to slip into a social media or video game black hole, to get blackout drunk or high and ultimately very depressed.
Older generations quite like to bring up the war … What is sitting inside and watching the telly box for a few weeks compared to fighting in World War II?! But how many of them experienced active service? Today, they would need to be at least 95. What have the previous two generations faced (collectively) that is so considerably worse than being tricked into a prison sentence … and then billed for it?
Panda La Terriere recently graduated from the University of Bristol where she studied Spanish and Theatre. She now lives in London and writes plays.
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