Student life in lockdown: ‘It feels as though the same four walls that I look at daily are slowly closing in on me'

Over 20,000 people have signed a petition for better education policies over lockdown. Credit: Students For Academic Mitigation / PA

Thousands of University students across the UK have been told to work from their childhood bedrooms this month to avoid returning to campus.Unsure of how they will be graded, tired of virtual lectures and still forking out rent for rooms they cannot stay in, many are fed up. Which is why over 20,000 people have joined together to petition for better policies.

Students For Academic Mitigation has seen students sign their name to an open letter to the Vice Chancellors of UK Universities as evidence of a nation worried over grading.Disgruntled Exeter fourth-year politics and sociology student Jake Myers told ITV News: “Universities responses can be described in one word - inconsistent.“Students have already locked themselves to staff offices, occupied buildings, and refused to pay rent.”Some universities have introduced a ‘no detriment’ policy which is used to adjust grades but others feel they are missing out.Jake had his year abroad in France disrupted last year and is now campaigning for students to be fairly assessed for their final grades.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the group's method. An email shared by the organisation showed a lecturer comparing their actions to "cyber terrorism".And in Cardiff, a lecturer was recently asked to stand down from a committee role after calling students “idiots” in a conversation about a petition for a safety net.Exeter University issued a statement to say the email used an “unwise choice of words”.But it also highlighted issues around disrupting operations, adding: “For the Education Services Teams, this would mean we were unable to respond to enquiries from students who may need urgent help."

The University of Exeter issued an apology over the language used in the email. Credit: Students For Academic Mitigation

The campaigners have been in talks with senior University officials to iron out policy changes with the hope of adjusting grade boundaries.

Jake said: “Once we’ve done it at Exeter, we can go to other universities and ask ‘Why haven’t you done it?’.

“It means you don’t have an excuse and no one will be left behind.

“We massively appreciate the support of academic staff, they understand it's been much harder this year.”But the politics student has seen the effects of coronavirus first hand after his grandparents caught the virus last year and one was on put on a ventilator. “I know how much damage that can do to a student and in many respects I was lucky because I was still able to study," he added.

‘Sometimes it feels as though the same four walls that I look at daily are slowly closing in on me'

Mahel Khan vlogs about University life to over 25,000 subscribers. Credit: Mahel Khan

Education vlogger Mahel Khan expected his final year of university to be difficult but he never imagined a tough ten months without seeing his friends or being able to go to the gym. The Nottingham University student made the decision to return to his home in Dartford before the second national lockdown. 

The changes have become the "new normal" but Mahel thinks it has had a negative effect on his mental health. He said: “Waking up in a room to move a couple of metres on to my desk to study for the day and then moving back a couple of metres into my bed to sleep and repeat the next day isn’t easy and very different to the active lifestyle that I used to lead pre-Covid.”Mahel doesn’t regret his decision to return home but said he sometimes feels isolated, "as though the same four walls that I look at daily are slowly closing in on me”.He shares the ups and downs of university life with his 25,000 YouTube subscribers, offering tips on coping during the pandemic while juggling while applying for a Masters degree.Being at home has helped him to focus on his final year with the support of his family.“Even when some days feel tougher than others, having the presence of my family gives me that feeling that I’m getting through my commitments with support behind me and that it’ll be worth it in the long term,” he said.

‘Students should not be cash cows’

Owen Arkley is working with other Lancaster University students to organise a rent strike. Credit: Owen Arkley

With campuses closed to many students until the national lockdown lifts, Januaryhas become dubbed a 'Rent Strike' month.Some are forking out hundreds of pounds for a room they cannot live in while they've been told to stay at home.Lancaster University student Owen Arkley is one of a team of people organising a rent strike this month, inspired by Manchester University's successful campaign which saw a 30% rent reduction.

Owen said: “Up until a few weeks ago, we were expected to be having a lot more in-person lectures and seminars that can't happen now; there's no doubt in my mind that the lockdown was necessary, but the situation is changing at such a rapid pace that many of us are finding it difficult to keep up.”

The history student is hoping to give his peers the security they are “desperately craving” by asking for a 50% rent reduction for students living on campus and a full rent waiver for those unable to access their rooms.Half of people surveyed in a recent YouGov poll think students unable to return to accommodation should not be made to pay rent as normal while a third of people think they should pay a reduced rate.Owen added: “All too often, students are expected to foot the bill during unprecedented circumstance."

Students at his university were able to shave thousands of pounds off their rent last year and with their most recent campaign, they saw 450 people commit to the strike overnight.  

Owen said: “We honestly had no idea if there would be an appetite for it, or if it would even end up being necessary. 

“We also want to set a precedent; that students should not be cash cows, a sentiment I'm sure any student, past or present, can agree with.” 

The history student doesn’t blame universities who were "taken by surprise like the rest of us", but noted that not every student was able to study.Owen was able to stay in Lancaster over the Christmas break to avoid encountering vulnerable relatives, but as he inches closer to completing his Masters degree, he wants to know others are being supported.Owen said: “I would personally take online classes for the rest of the year if it meant the world could have some sense of normalcy by the end of it."

‘I have only socialised face to face with my flatmates’ 

Amber has left her set up at University to work from home. Credit: Aspects of Amber

First-year education studies student Amber feels she has started to adjust to University life from home.Amber was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) which causes extreme tiredness. Studying from home has been surprisingly positive for the Bath Spa University student who has been able to create a quiet study space and return to pre-recorded online lectures to get through her work.Amber told ITV News: “I can watch them when I feel well enough rather than at a set time. 

“As someone with sensory sensitivity being able to work in a calm and quiet space as opposed to university halls, which aren't the quietest of places, has been really positive in helping me to stay focused and maximise my productivity within the limited energy I have.” 

Although Amber has an accessibility adviser who helps to keep her informed while off campus, she feels more could be learned by speaking to disabled people and blogs about her experience at university.She noted that the addition of subtitles and captioning would open up learning to a broad range of people.But the thing Amber misses most at the moment is meeting up with her flatmates.

Amber said: “I have only socialised face to face with my flatmates and have had limited opportunities to get to know the other people on my course.“We are spending so many hours a day on Zoom or other similar platforms that we are all experiencing 'Zoom fatigue'. 

“Having the beautiful grounds of campus to wheel around was brilliant to get out safely for a change of scenery rather than staring at a screen.”