As the UK descended into another national lockdown back in January, university students across the country found themselves left in the lurch and confused about what they could or could not do. Under ambiguous advice, a multitude of students returned to their term-time addresses in the hopes of a more productive environment to complete their degree in. For many students at Leeds, this has not been the case – with an incredibly limited number of study spaces available, students have repeatedly found themselves struggling to access university provisions.
Though the majority of learning remains online for the semester, government guidelines dictate that study spaces and practice areas may be opened under additional measures, at the discretion of the provider’s judgement. Currently, the University of Leeds are operating a bookable system through Eventbrite offering access to a limited number of seats in Edward Boyle and Laidlaw Libraries, as well as Common Ground café. The Brotherton and Health Sciences Libraries remain closed for the foreseeable future.
The expectation to work at home during a national lockdown is perhaps not outlandish in itself. Yet, these study spaces state they are available for essential use, which the Department for Education defines as extending to those who do not have access to appropriate study spaces or facilities in their accommodation. For many of Leeds’ students, there is no doubt that these study spaces are vital.
As we progress further into the semester, it has become increasingly clear that many students are struggling and the limited access to study spaces as it stands is not enough. With spaces released every day at 3pm, a pattern has emerged wherein slots ‘sell out’ within minutes, leaving many students lost without access to a space. With over 30,000 students at University of Leeds (albeit not all of those currently in the city), it is clear that demand far outweighs what is available. Faced with the reality of looming deadlines and dissertations, the lack of study space is beginning to cause real worry for students at Leeds.
Elsewhere in the country, other universities have made efforts to open a larger range of study spaces to accommodate their students. University of Manchester are offering freely available spaces alongside their 3,000 bookable slots, whilst the University of York are opening up spaces across all three of their libraries and other buildings, as well as dedicated Video-Call rooms for students needing to participate in online seminars.
With ample social distancing measures in place and the Asymptomatic Test Centre on campus allowing students the opportunity for regular, effective COVID-19 testing, the lack of action made by the University to open up more study spaces has been baffling for many students.
Simon Marshall, a Mathematics student at Leeds, grew increasingly frustrated with the struggle to access libraries and the inefficient booking system, resorting to setting up a petition to call for action to be made. “I decided to start the petition in hopes of pressuring senior management to make some big decisions. It may seem like a really small issue in the grand scheme of things but honestly these are the things which we as students have power to influence and can make life easier for so many of us,” explains Simon. “Keeping half of the libraries closed just makes no sense and we shouldn’t let them get away with it. The response to the petition has been great with over 500 signing in a week, and we have made the VC and pro-Deans aware of the growing desire among students for more facilities to open.”
The petition calls for the University to prioritise making study spaces accessible and available for students in Leeds – as it stands, in-person services are minimal. Of course, opening more study spaces would require more staff and increasingly rigorous measures to keep the spaces COVID-19 safe. For many students living in cramped student housing and facing the mental drain of working and unwinding in one space, the extra measures would be a small price to pay with major benefits.
As part of Simon’s petition, final year Biological Sciences student Kian Pagnier collated student responses to the lack of spaces available, many of which detail the difficulties these students are facing. One student writes: “As a student with ADHD, I find it very difficult to study at home and the atmosphere of the library helps immensely with getting my work done.” Similarly, another student explains that they “struggle to work from home due to a noisy house and poor Wi-Fi. The library is crucial for getting in the right headspace and completing productive work, especially in my final year as I’m writing my dissertation.”
It is glaringly obvious that the impact of online learning has taken its toll on students across the UK, and without study spaces to alleviate the effects, they are keenly felt. One student wrote: “When I applied for this course, I was expecting to have access to study spaces. I live in a campervan, and although I have internet and power, it is not sufficient for powering my laptop for a whole day of Teams calls. After paying £10,500 for this course, I think the service and facility provisions has been unsatisfactory.” It is clear that the availability of study spaces for some students is monumental in the quality of their learning at this stage.
Whether the issue lies in students not turning up for the slots they book, leaving empty spaces, or whether there is simply a sheer lack of spaces available to meet the needs of thousands of students, it is evident that students are committed to pushing the University for change. “We’re still waiting for them to do something but hoping that we are quite close to getting somewhere now,” Simon anticipates. “If everyone keeps signing and sending them emails, they will soon have no choice but to listen to us.”
As final deadlines creep closer, the concern mounts. Having listened to the worries of students at Leeds, Kian has found himself “deeply disappointed” with the lack of support from the University. “Things must be improved and that starts with opening more study space and hiring more staff. If nothing happens, we are unfortunately going to see Leeds students being part of a minority in the UK who see their degree outcomes suffer as a result of inaccessible study space,” Kian attests. “Library slots get sold out in under 2 minutes, but action on this matter is going to have to happen even faster.”
A University of Leeds spokesperson said: “The health and safety of students and staff remains our top priority during the pandemic. We are continuing to follow Government guidance for all universities, including restricting the provision of campus study space to ‘essential access only’. We understand that this presents challenges and, following a review, a new booking system will be in place from 8 March. Changes include being able to reserve a seat on the day if one is available, and increasing the number of spaces in the Laidlaw and Edward Boyle libraries, and re-opening the Health Sciences Library. Other services including click and collect, webchat, 1-2-1 skills support and study skills webinars remain available. Details about the new study space booking system can be found here.”
Featured image via Elle Palmer.