University Challenge – the real questions are harder

by Alice Gilchrist-Miller.

While this may not be what we tell our parents, most young people value the social side of university life over the educational aspect of getting our degrees. Of course, this is not to say that students don’t appreciate the value of being able to attend university – when push comes to shove, we work hard and pull never-ending streams of regret-filled all-nighters (all the while painfully aware of the multi-thousand-pound price tag on the process). However, for many of us, the primary attraction of university is the independence and social experience it provides that facilitates our transition into adulthood. It is in this time of our lives, newly independent and self-sufficient for the first time, that students begin to properly understand the world and the societies they live in. Being entirely surrounded by other young people in an environment focussed predominantly on nothing other than studying and partying (not necessarily in that order) and largely free from any major responsibilities or concerns efficiently catalyses the development of our social understanding and political beliefs.

Indeed, this incessant socialising is often far more educational than it is given credit for. Yes, we like to have fun, but the vast majority of us are also genuinely interested in our subject area, to an extent that frequently results in long heated discussions about politics, history, science, literature and everything else at any time of day or night – certainly a more uninhibited, per se, and engaging form of learning than sitting in silence at the back of a lecture theatre, which has a tendency to be somewhat repressive. This open dialogue not only allows for our subject matter to be debated, criticised and re-imagined, but also facilitates social networking with other future pioneers.

However, in this coming year and for the foreseeable future, the student experience is inevitably going to be every different. Social distancing measures are still very much in play and pubs are only just beginning to reopen – needless to say clubs and raves are still unfortunately way beyond the realms of possibility. This leaves students apprehensively questioning what our lives at university will look like: Will we be confined to our accommodations and houses? Will we be able to go out, but only in carefully controlled groups and only to certain places? Exactly what the restrictions will be is still uncertain, but it seems unlikely anyone will get the eventful, social Freshers week and exciting, unrestrained freedom they so eagerly anticipated. While this may not be such a disappointment for the 2nd and 3rd years who have already met their course mates and made good friends, the same cannot be said for new students, who will not only be moving to university for the first time but most likely to a whole new city as well. Without the rite-of-passage opportunity to socialise freely and meet as many people as humanly possible, I find it hard to see how new students will truly be able to happily settle into university life. In a time when everything in your life changes and you are truly on your own for the first time, it is vital to have a strong network of friends around you to support you. And more importantly, to go out with and get drunk.

There are, of course, many other non-social aspects of higher education affected by COVID-19. For example, the universally dreaded exams. Despite the reduction of exam-based assessment in favour of coursework in more recent years, time-controlled examinations remain intrinsic to the university system and, in spite of being absolutely loved by so many, can always be improved. It goes without saying that the usual end-of-year exams, in which hundreds of students cram into a single hall for hours at a time, are in complete contradiction with social-distancing guidelines. Instead, students across the country and indeed the world have been completing their assessments online, often with a longer time-limit and the option to check revision notes. This has many impacts including increased flexibility and a proven reduction in exam anxiety (Sambell, Sambell and Sexton, 1999)1, not to a mention considerable reduction in paper waste, but most importantly reflects a perhaps overdue modernisation of the exam system into the ever-more internet-based 21st century. Perhaps the coronavirus-induced advent of online learning can pave the way to a future of updated exam protocol which will not only facilitate a more effective evaluation of test-takers’ abilities, but hopefully also reduce the toxic strain on students’ mental health which currently seems so unfortunately synonymous with exam season.

Young people are at the lowest risk from coronavirus – only 1% of deaths are people aged 15-44, and just 0.01% of under-15s.2 I say this not to dismiss or negate the impact of coronavirus – it is a deadly disease, and rightly at the forefront of our national priority. However, we must consider the relative impact of social distancing measures in comparison to the impact on students’ personal, social and political development. Does the relatively small reduction in likelihood of contracting an overwhelmingly non-fatal illness truly outweigh the comparative harm to many other important areas of young people’s lives?

It is also worth considering the fact that when at university, we live in largely self-contained student populations. It could be argued that it is in fact more dangerous for students to remain at their family homes, often close to elderly relatives and older parents who are more at risk from COVID-19. If students were to move into university accommodations and socialise as normal, the inevitable transmission of the coronavirus would be contained within the student population, effectively minimising the risk of the illness. Any student will tell you that they are always ill anyway as a result of too much partying and too little sleep (and in an unfortunately amount of cases, a lack of understanding of basic bodily hygiene). Additionally, we must consider the impact of social isolation on young peoples’ mental health. Over a third of 1st year students (significantly more, in my experience) already suffer from at least one mental illness3, the most common (but no less disabling) being anxiety and depression. Considering the fact that feelings of loneliness, caused by isolation, have major impact on mental health and has been proven to increase levels of stress4, I truly believe it is of paramount importance for students to be socially integrated as much as possible, and that it would be healthier not only for young people but for their families as well if students were able to return to and socialise within their university accommodations as normal.

But perhaps we should consider looking at this social isolation from another perspective. It could be argued that perhaps this reduced amount of socialising has forced not just young people, but everyone, to truly become aware of the issues happening in the world. I think it is safe to say that in this unprecedented isolation experienced during quarantine., we have overwhelmingly turned to the internet and social media as a way to connect with the outside world. While it is undeniably disheartening for it to have taken a socio-economic shut-down on a global scale, it is most certainly for the best that we have finally been forced to face the institutional issues at the core of our society without distraction (which, incidentally, is what I believe has allowed the incredible growth of the Black Lives Matter movement into one of the largest civil rights movements in history).

The impact of Covid-19 is felt in every dimension of life, not only in the restrictions it imposes but also in the chance it provides us with to re-imagine a new and improved way of life. Especially pertinent to this is the student experience. Young people are often so quickly dismissed as inexperienced, as oblivious to the unfortunate but functional limitations of reality, that people seem to forget in fact it is this very quality – this blind drive for change – that facilitates the continual development of society. This is evident in the countless socio-political revolutions throughout history begun and led by students: the lunch counter sit-ins of the 60s, the Vietnam war protests of the 70s, Tiananmen square and the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and more recently in both the Greta Thunberg-inspired rebirth of the environmental movement and now the Black Lives Matter movement. Whatever you want to call it, whether it be idealism or naivety, young people remain unrivalled in their passion for social justice and relentless protest for a better world.

Truthfully, the nature of this pandemic is so unprecedented we can only speculate on what the future will hold. But perhaps this global shut-down is a blessing in disguise – a unique opportunity to debate, to criticise, to re-evaluate our normal and re-create what was previously thought to be unchangeable. Maybe it’s finally time to forget ‘reality’: start thinking like a student and revolutionise the world.

Photograph (c) Nicola Denley


  1. ‘Sambell, Sambell and Sexton (1999) found that their students reported less exam anxiety when computer assessments were a component of continuous assessment throughout the semester as each test did not represent a high level of risk for the students and they were able to build their confidence in their abilities along the way. Students particularly appreciated the opportunity to do practice tests online, reporting that they assisted them in knowing what to study and they helped them to pace their revision so they did not just cram for the final exam’.  –
  • 2016 study led by Newcastle University epidemiologist Nicole Valtorta, PhD,

      “loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, impede sleep and, in turn, harm the body. Loneliness can also augment depression or anxiety.”

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