How Leeds Students Really Feel About Returning To University

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A drop in international student enrolment, the rise of online learning, a botched A-Level algorithm and complete lack of guidance from universities themselves have left many students anxious about how their experience of university may be affected.

After receiving responses from a questionnaire I shared online, it soon became clear that worry and uncertainty seem to be widespread among many Leeds students.

Here at Leeds, Freshers Week usually involves Otley Run’s, overpriced UV club nights and an inevitable visit to Fruity, so it is unsurprising that over half of the respondents mention not having the same social experience as their main concern. As uni-newbies, many first-year students will have been given one piece of long-standing advice for making new friends — ‘put yourself out there and get involved’. However, this year it’s still not completely clear what there will be to get involved with…

‘In my first year, such a huge part of the experience was going out, joining societies and making new friends. This is a huge blow to the uni lifestyle, and I worry that it will mean freshers especially finding it harder to make friends.’

45% of respondents are also anxious that they don’t have an adequate environment to study in, if libraries are not available. Although Edward Boyle is now open for a click & collect service and limited bookable study space, I’m left concerned that reduced measures simply won’t be enough to support the university’s 30,000+ students. Any returning students will already be well-versed in the carnage of finding a seat in the library — with students usually crammed into every possible seat by midday. For students living in shared houses especially, the library is a lifeline, providing an escape from inevitable rat infestations, washing machine arguments and that blissful 24/7 echo of drum & bass.

‘Edward Boyle Library’ credit: University of Leeds

On a more optimistic note, after many students left Leeds in March when lockdown began, it seems they’re all longing to make their return, regardless of the ‘new normal’ which awaits us. 80% of students are looking forward to being reunited with friends and regaining independence. However, Hyde Park is undoubtedly a hub of activity — defined by house parties, visits to RPP and overlapping social circles. Turns out, we are at the centre of a mass migration back into student areas that UCU are calling ‘a recipe for disaster’ (sounds like fun). Over August bank holiday weekend, West Yorkshire Police shut down two house parties in Leeds, with hosts being fined £10,000 each for breaching the current COVID-19 regulations. I’m not sure many students can afford to be hosting parties right now, but it definitely won’t stop people from trying.

‘I feel that being are going to be having house parties to make up for the fact that clubs will be closed, and all it takes is a couple of parties and then [covid] could spread like wildfire across campus’

Despite all our concerns about what a socially distanced semester may entail, 94% of respondents still plan to live in Leeds this year, with most having already paid thousands in rent payments for empty houses over the summer. In fact, money is on most students’ minds. Having heard from a range of respondents, two recurring concerns were clear; financial pressures from COVID job losses and questions over the monetary value of online education.

‘Online learning’ credit: Inside Higher Ed

A student with anxiety argued in favour of online learning, who pointed out that a virtual lecture is a less intimidating environment where they are enabled to learn at their own pace and with improved concentration. However, most students shared the view that collaboration with peers and lecturers is integral not only for academic success, but also motivation. The old, pre-recorded lectures and unclear emails we received last semester simply were not good enough.

‘information about work and deadlines was so confusing and last minute, and also I struggled to take in information over video lectures, where you can’t interact with your peers if you don’t understand something, and you can’t ask questions easily when they come to you’

Of course, the majority of us will never have to fully pay back the loans we borrow, but many feel that their experience this year will be closer to an Open University course, which total only £6000 per year. It seems that the University are clutching at straws in justifying their tuition fees, selling it as a continuation of high-quality education in a “blended” style. However, in reality, people’s module choices have already been restricted, timetables show a clear majority of online learning and the vague to non-existent emails continue.

However, the bottom line is students simply don’t believe their 2020/21 education to be worth the debt we are incurring. A mere 3 respondents were happy in paying the same fees as any usual year.

‘I wouldn’t have an issue if we paid accordingly, but we were sold an experience that’s now not happening. All this bollocks about getting ‘the same qualification’ – nobody talks about qualifications on open days, they talk about the uni experience in Leeds and vibrant social life available. They’ve changed their narrative to allow them to overcharge a notoriously financially strapped collective – students. Eat the damn rich’

We are approaching what appears to be a ‘toned-down’ first term, and one that differs from every Fresher’s Week that precedes it.

Header image credit: Search Engine Journal