Despairing students locked down in halls of residence feel they were lured to university with false promises – and many now desperately want to go back home.
With huge outbreaks of coronavirus at many universities across the country and thousands of students trapped in tiny rooms surrounded by people they barely know, and many universities now having abandoned face-to-face teaching altogether in favour of online lectures, students are questioning why they went away to study in the first place.
They told HuffPost UK they believe they were sold false dreams of life on “Covid-safe” campuses in an attempt to secure their money for tuition fees and accommodation.
Jen Varlow, 18, left her home in York to study history and politics at the University of Sheffield after the A-levels predicted grades fiasco saw her lose her first-choice place at Nottingham University.
All the same, she had been excited and looking forward to the university experience.
“Right from moving in day, I realised things would be completely different from what I’d thought,” she told HuffPost UK.
“We were only given 90-minute slots to move in and could only take one family member with us. I’d originally planned to go with my mum, dad and sister but it ended up just being me and my mum and I had to say my goodbyes to everyone else beforehand.
“It was nothing like I imagined moving in day at university to be when I was younger. I always thought it would be exciting. But it was really stressful and it was a rush to get everything in the room in the time frame.”
Jen began settling into university life and getting to know her fellow students. But on the Monday of her second week, one of her flatmates came down with coronavirus symptoms so 11 of them had to self isolate.
A couple of days later, Jen got symptoms and was quite poorly. “It was a scary experience,” she said. “I was with people I’d never met before and all of a sudden, we were stuck with each other for 24 hours a day.
“Luckily, we all got on well and there were no fall-outs. Everyone was angry and sad at the situation, but not at each other.”
Jen told HuffPost UK that the university experience is “non existent” and that when she was self isolating the online provision was “terrible” – although lectures have now been moved online.
“I emailed one of my tutors to say I was self-isolating and wouldn’t be able to attend the in-person seminar, hoping they would be able to set up a zoom link.
“But I was told the expectation was for students to be there in person so they wouldn’t be setting up a live link.”
Jen said she had been torn about whether to go to university or defer for a year. Now, she just wants to go back home and would rather do online learning from York than risk going to in-person lessons.
“I cannot describe how badly I want to go home,” she told HuffPost UK. “I’m not homesick and I love uni – just not in the middle of a global pandemic.
“I believe university students were badly let down and lied to. They told us it would be Covid-safe and we would get the same university experience and then once we had signed our rental agreements, we were trapped in a tiny room not being able to see anyone.
“It feels like a thinly veiled attempt to get our money and then just abandon us.
“I know university is what I want and it is the right path for me as I want to become a lawyer. But I am not getting what I paid for and feel we were brought in on promises that weren’t kept.”
Jen says she is also disheartened at the way students are being blamed for the spread of coronavirus, as she says only a small minority are breaking the rules. Most, she believes, are frightened of the virus or repercussions of flouting the restrictions.
“If I could get my tuition fees refunded, I would definitely go home and start afresh next year,” she said.
“Life is uncertain and scary at university and I am trapped in a city I don’t know. I have cried so much about it.
“I just want to go home and be safe with my family.”
I cannot describe how badly I want to go home. I’m not homesick and I love uni – just not in the middle of a global pandemicJen Varlow, a student at the University of Sheffield
One mother whose 18-year-old son is at university in Leeds told HuffPost UK how he had been looking forward to university for years – but decided to return home after not having any proper human contact for four weeks.
He was forced to isolate after his flatmate tested positive for Covid-19 within his first week of studying.
“He was sitting in his room isolating because a flatmate he never saw had tested positive,” she said.
“When his timetable came through, he only had one lecture a week at the university and then 11 hours of online tutorials and seminars, some live and some pre-recorded.
“What is the point? He was on his own in a very small room and when he did go to his one lecture a week, it was an awful experience. The students were sat with plastic sheeting between them so they couldn’t talk and straight after the tutorial, they were ushered out of the building.
“After having a negative Covid test, he has now come home as he didn’t see the point of being there and needed human contact.”
I feel students were tricked and sent to university purely to get their accommodation money. But they should not be using this younger generation as an experiment.
She said her son is now back in Essex, which has a far lower coronavirus rate than Leeds – and she can’t understand why the government and universities encouraged the mass migration of students just for them to sit in small rooms accessing online learning.
“His university accommodation cost £6,300 for the year,” she told HuffPost UK. “It just seems a pointless cost when he could have stayed at home and studied.
“I feel students were tricked and sent to university purely to get their accommodation money.
“But they should not be using this younger generation as an experiment and treating them like this.”
A father-of-four from London whose youngest son has recently started studying physics at the University of Manchester agrees that students were lured to campus under false pretences.
“As parents, we were concerned that students were encouraged to go to university with no assurances beyond being told Covid measures were in place,” he said.
“Our anxiety turned to anger when we realised all lessons were going to be done remotely and the suspicion grew that this had all simply been done to get accommodation money and tuition fees from students.
“They have exploited young people who are innocents keen to spread their wings.”
He said his son tested positive for coronavirus after about 10 days at uni, but has now recovered.
They have exploited young people who are innocents keen to spread their wings
“Why were these young people encouraged to go to university when they could have told them to study from home until January, when hopefully things would be better?”
Junior Usina – welfare executive officer at the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union – told HuffPost UK students had been put in a horrendous situation by both the government and universities.
“The first priority for the government and universities when discussing students going to university should have been their welfare and safety, but this was not considered,” he said.
“Students were fed false promises and are now aware that the campus experience does not exist and many of them just want to go home.”
He said the students’ union has been contacted by many unhappy students and has worked to secure an agreement so students who want to return home can leave their accommodation contract.
Students were fed false promises and are now aware that the campus experience does not exist and many of them just want to go homeJunior Usina, welfare executive officer at University of Manchester’s Students’ Union
But tier restrictions and lockdown measures have discouraged many from moving around the country.
Usina also believes the government’s push to get students to university will backfire by resulting in a greater number of university dropouts and a “national educational depression”.
“Some students might decide to drop out of university and move back home for good,” he said. “Students are frightened and want to go home but don’t want to be liable for their rent.
“Those who want to come back in the future are worried they will lose their accommodation unless they keep paying rent.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) is similarly calling for students nationwide to have the right to leave university accommodation and access education entirely online.
It also wants to see students allowed to defer or drop out of courses with no financial detriment, and for rent reimbursements to be given.
NUS president Larissa Kennedy said: “It is clear that students have been mis-sold their experience this term by universities forced to prioritise their income over the health of their staff and students.
The detriment this will have on students and local communities is unforgivableLarissa Kennedy, the NUS national president
“Instead of using the summer to prepare for this inevitability and mitigate risks for university populations and the local communities they are part of, the government waited until the last possible moment to issue guidance to institutions and we are yet to see an effective testing regime on many of our campuses.
“The detriment this will have on students and local communities is unforgivable. The impact on students’ health and wellbeing has been clearly disregarded – and yet students are being blamed for simply adhering to guidelines and following rules set by the government.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), told HuffPost UK the situation could have been avoided if the government had listened to warnings that universities and their communities would become coronavirus hotspots without a proper test and trace system and regular testing of students and staff.
“We urged that only teaching that needed to happen in person such as in labs should resume, but that everything else should be online,” she said.
“Students should have been encouraged to stay at home and we should not have had the mass movement of them throughout the country.”
She added: “Some people are seeking to scapegoat students. But the reality is that many are trapped in halls and are facing the Groundhog Day of self-isolation due to the insistence of in-person teaching which means they keep coming into contact with people who test positive.”
Grady accused the government of having a “boarding school view” of what university is like and says ministers hadn’t even considered the plight of working class students who need to work to pay their way through university, or the challenges faced by disabled students.
She fears there will be a lot of university dropouts this year and that many students won’t return to university in January after having had such a traumatic experience. “None of their normal coping mechanisms are there,” she said, “and they are trapped with people they hardly know.
“It is so irresponsible of the government and universities to put them in this predicament.”
The negligence of it all is disgracefulJo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union
UCU has launched a petition demanding the UK government move learning online at all universities immediately as the total number of reported Covid-19 cases on campuses since the start of term has now risen to over 20,000.
It also wants additional funding to protect students and staff from the coronavirus crisis and for those students who want to return home to be moved in a safe and managed way without any financial detriment.
“This situation was predicted by all manner of scientists, and in particular, the government’s own scientific advisors,” said Grady.
“Now we have got uncontrollable outbreaks at so many universities and many students are sitting lonely in their rooms.
“The negligence of it all is disgraceful.”