This week, Cambridge University announced that “there will be no face-to-face lectures next year”. It followed a similar announcement made by Manchester University that all lectures for Semester 1 will be taught online. Exeter University swiftly moved to do the same. Undoubtedly, many more prestigious UK universities will follow suit – potentially even our own. With no decision yet taken by St Andrews at time of writing, my fear is that our own university will also implement measures designed to follow government guidance on social distancing, leaving many students with a difficult decision to make: to return, or not to return.
If, by great misfortune of circumstance, we are indeed to receive our lectures beamed onto screens in St Andrews flats and Halls of Residence alike, I know that I, for one, will strongly consider applying for a Leave of Absence. I understand that there is no certainty that one of these will be granted (they are “not a guaranteed right”, according to university policy), but I feel it is worth the attempt should the abominable announcement be made.
It goes without saying that the university finds itself in an unenviable position. Haemorrhaging money with little to show for it but desperate to provide students with an acceptable university experience, senior management must be tearing their hair out. Difficulties are deepened by their awareness of the risks to the health of the aged cohort of the town and the requirement to follow instructions received from Holyrood. The university has little choice but to follow social distancing measures, and implement them campus-wide. These measures are no doubt considered reasonable by the Scottish government, and you too might consider them reasonable steps – necessary, even – to remove all traces of coronavirus in the public domain. But that is a separate debate.
Assuming that social distancing measures are to greet returnees upon matriculation for Martinmas term 2020, consider the new status quo. After all, if lecture halls are no-go zones, the library will certainly be out of action. I myself have been witness to the dreaded Week 5 deadline weekend there. I was probably exposed to a plethora of ailments before I even made the turnstiles. It only follows that the Union, too, will be shut on a Friday night. Enforcing social distancing rules on the lovers in Main Bar at one in the morning is impossible. Perhaps worse: balls, the very staple of the St Andrews scene, are unstageable. We might as well play musical statues – two metres apart, and definitely no Starfields mosh pit. Is this the university you applied for? I think not, and, as I result, I am strongly considering the prospect of taking a year out and returning when this has all blown over.
I do not deny that it is very sad to hear reports that the university is struggling. But coronavirus is not my doing, and it is not my fault that Covid has exposed the unsustainable university funding situation. I must instead act selfishly; I might in the latter years of my life regret wasting my twenty-first studying from a box room and only experiencing Union Bops via Zoom, not to mention all the novel awkwardnesses and impositions of social distancing: limits on numbers in pubs, bookshops, and coffee shops, for example; or gym closures; or a ban on team sports all together.
Coronavirus has thus prompted me to ask the question: why did I take the plunge on a four-year English course that I could have gotten at a different university for £20,000 and an entire year of my life less? It certainly wasn’t the prospect of an extra year’s worth of lectures. I have Cambridge Core and Project Muse now, and I can read on JSTOR a million different articles about anything I have the urge to care about. As Will Hunting deftly noted: if I were only here for the knowledge of my lecturers, then I dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education that I could have gotten for a pound fifty in late charges at my public library. No, I came because I was told that university is a place where we can all grow up and become adults in the safest environment possible. Social distancing comprehensively eliminates all chance of experiences that encourage such growth.
The alternative to a redundant year spent hitting deadlines and working solely towards that piece of paper and gown at the end is one of potential self-betterment and reward. I personally am considering a job at a local supermarket or fruit plantation, when after a six-month stint working hard for a bit of money, and with restrictions on foreign travel undoubtedly lifted, I will flee abroad on a well-deserved and extremely delayed summer holiday. In the meantime I will become so well-read that I could vomit an English textbook on request. I will return to university, rejuvenated and raring to go after this long stint moulding in the confines of my house.
I know that these are unrealistic plans in the current circumstances – but the point is that I have been provoked into hatching them, as I’m sure many students have likewise. It is certainly not unreasonable to consider alternative action when thousands of pounds of borrowed money are on the line. My advice to fellow students is not to meekly accept the situation you find yourselves in if it doesn’t suit your expectations. I am not telling you to drop out, nor am I telling you to break the law. I merely recommend that you consider a year’s delay to your studies and do something that might add more strings to your already taut bow. I admit that the university might not approve a Leave of Absence; it might not accept any application. But at least we will have expressed our distaste with potential circumstances.
For now, though, September is a long way off. If this virus has taught me anything, it’s that a lot can happen in three months. Nicola Sturgeon has already today announced a relaxed lockdown effective from next Monday. If all goes well, the 2020-21 academic year will progress without incident, just as other years have. And yet there remains the most minuscule of chances that you will find me, this time next year, sunning myself on a Thai beach, with not even the smallest of notions of the infamous academic year of upheaval behind me.