Comment Editor Freya Wainstein interviews two incoming freshers on their plans for university and how coronavirus has impacted these
The global pandemic continues to breed uncertainty surrounding the student experience in September, with online learning and physical distancing measures likely to be in place. Therefore, many who were hoping to start university this Autumn are beginning to question that decision. In fact, as one in five students plan to defer, UK universities are likely to face a £760m cut in funding. A survey found that more than 20% of students applying for undergraduate places would want to delay beginning their courses if universities were not operating as usual. Understandably, students may question the quality of their education if lectures are online, they may not be open to the prospect of a socially distanced social life, and may have fears about leaving home at such an unsettling time.
Interested to hear first-hand from people facing this difficult decision, I spoke to Amelia – whose name I have changed for anonymity purposes – and Jasmine. Whilst Amelia is planning to take a gap year, Jasmine hopes to begin university this September. Thus, I wanted to hear their contrasting responses to some questions I had, in order to understand the main concerns and sticking points that have led to their differing standpoints.
What and where are you hoping to study?
Jasmine: ‘I’m hoping to study Film and Television Studies at Nottingham University.’
Amelia: ‘I want to study Geography at Durham.’
As it currently stands, is there any chance you will change your mind, and if so, what could make you?
Jasmine: ‘I think it’s very unlikely that I’d change my mind, but if there was a second peak of the Coronavirus and if my university then said everything will be online or you won’t be able to come, then I would definitely consider finding another option. But I think that’s the only reason I would.’
Amelia: ‘I think the only reason that I wouldn’t do a gap year now is if I missed my grades and had to go through clearing. I don’t think I would change my mind other than that.’
What are your priorities when it comes to university – for example social life, education, getting a good job – and how have they played into your decision?
Jasmine: ‘Definitely a balance of all of those, but I think more education and social life and making friends. Education wise, I want to get a degree so obviously have to go to university. With making friends, that’s one of my main concerns because if most of my lectures are going to be online, I will not be able to socialise as much. Still, I think because the education is important, I’m prepared to sacrifice some social aspects, but it is a 50/50, I don’t think one of them is weighing me down too much.’
Amelia: ‘I chose Durham because it’s quite a good university and it has good job prospects afterwards. Also, for my course it’s really highly rated. Then I think that also made me more inclined to do a gap year because I know that the nightlife at Durham really isn’t the best even without Coronavirus. So I thought if I’m going to take a year out and going to have to work quite hard, this is the best time to do it.’
Are you worried about your social life and how can you see it working?
Jasmine: ‘I am slightly worried, just because there is so much uncertainty. I am the kind of person who likes to be organised so with no one really knowing what is going on, some of my anxieties are going there. With saying that, I still feel as if, because my university is a campus, we are all going to be able to socialise no matter what, whether that’s within my flat or on my course, or just around campus. I think the student union will have to fill in for the things we have missed out on in terms of clubbing. I feel as if, in a weird way, the university has to put a message out that they are following the strict rules, but when we get there it will be a bit more relaxed. The student union know what we want socially, so they will definitely play a big part.’
What are your plans for your gap year and are you worried about travelling?
Amelia: ‘My plan currently is to go abroad on a structured programme, allowing me to live and volunteer abroad with other people taking gap years. The reason I chose to go to one country rather than travelling is because I know that I’ll go there, I’ll quarantine for two weeks and then it’ll be fine. Also, I found a really amazing organisation I can volunteer at which links to my course. Whereas, some of my other friends who are doing gap years have these up-in-the-air plans about travel which doesn’t seem like the most sensible thing because I don’t think they’ll be able to go from country to country.’
Have you thought about the potential competition next year and if so, has it influenced your decision?
Jasmine: ‘Yes definitely. This year, everyone is in the same boat and I think they will be a lot more lenient with accepting people. The numbers are going to be low, so they are going to accept more people who didn’t get the grades. Also, as we didn’t take our exams, our grades will not necessarily be what we would have got or could have got. Whereas next year, the competition will be very intense as it will basically be my year, plus the following year, all trying to get into university. So I think that is a main reason that I don’t want to take a gap year because I know that getting into university next year, will be much harder. Also, even if I had a deferred place, the lecturers would have so much on their plate.’
Amelia: ‘Yeah definitely. It was quite stressful, but I wrote to Durham asking to defer my place and they said they would, so my offer is now for 2021 and if I make my grades I don’t need to reapply. But before I knew they were going to defer me it was definitely a factor because I think it’s going to be a lot harder to get in next year. If they hadn’t deferred me, I definitely would reconsider whether a gap year is the best option.’
What are those around you doing and how much has that impacted your decision?
Jasmine: ‘My friends are split 50/50 on whether they want to take a gap year. I know a lot of people are waiting until results day and then seeing what happens and deciding on the day. I think a lot of people just really want to go because this whole stretch of quarantine has felt like a summer as we didn’t have exams, and so a lot of my friends want to get back into a routine and don’t want to be out of education for too long. What my friends were doing impacted my decision a lot at the beginning but now that I’ve had more time to think about it, I don’t really care what anyone else is doing, particularly as we’re not all going to Nottingham so I wouldn’t be seeing them anyway.’
Amelia: ‘To be honest, most people are just going to go to university as normal. The ones that are the most affected are the ones that were supposed to go to the US because they can’t get visas but most of my friends who were originally planning to go to British universities are going to go. I can’t speak for the whole country obviously, but most of my friends are going to go to university in September and the ones who were originally planning on taking a gap year are doing them. I don’t think that many people have changed their decision. What my friends are doing hasn’t impacted my decision that much because most of them aren’t going to Durham.’
Finally, what would you say was the final straw that pushed you to decide to go or not to go?
Jasmine: ‘There was a point when I was really considering a gap year and I was looking at my options. I had always imagined that if I took a gap year, I would spend half the year working and then go travelling, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. When I was looking and researching about what I could do in my gap year I just saw how limited my options would have been and thought that if I want to go travelling, I want to do it properly after university. So that was it: seeing that there was not really much opportunity for me to take a gap year and do things productively.’
Amelia: ‘I think it was when we were in lockdown and Boris [Johnson] gave a speech where we thought there were going to be lots of restrictions lifted and then there weren’t really. Then I just thought that even if all this is over by the time I go to university, there is no way clubs and places like that are going to be open and Fresher’s Week isn’t going to happen in the same way. I think it’s so much easier to make friends in that environment and without that it’s not the same university experience. I feel as if my year has missed out on so many big things, for example we didn’t do our A-Levels, finish school, or have a prom. It just seems like missing out on another big thing so if I could go to university a year later and find something genuinely valuable to do in the interim, why wouldn’t I?’
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