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Opinion //

The social isolation of university life

Arguing for a less transactional, more equal and involved university post-isolation.

Ah, how we have suffered this year. ‘Rona really put a dampener on things didn’t it? The social aspect of university was totally lost. I’m so glad we’re going back to in person classes, at least for tutes, it’s better than nothing. It’s going to be so good to be around other people again! 

But wait a minute, I had fuck all social life at uni before the virus. Now, it’s coming back to me. Avoiding eye contact when entering lectures and tutorials. Sitting looking straight ahead, a mandatory two seats between myself and anyone else in the class; and that was well before ‘social distancing’ entered my lexicon. Getting to about week four and thinking ‘it’s too awkward to introduce myself now.’ A silence at the obligatory end of class ‘any questions?’ before a line forms to ask the prof one on one, god forbid having to speak in front of the whole class.

‘University is great, it was the best time of my life, I made so many great friends’ – is a notion only peddled by boomers, college kids and people who studied weirdly specific degrees. Why, you ask? I have a theory. For these people, the university experience involved a ‘cohort.’ This is a group of students, who (for better or worse) were grouped together in a variety of contexts. In the heyday of my parent’s generation, they would start out as a larger group of around 100 students enrolled in a course in the first year, with about half of them successfully making it as a group to the second year. Indeed, in this context, and in more specialised degrees today, these social groups came about through a smaller number of students studying any degree and with less choice of subjects. Before someone in the admin building starts frothing, that’s not to say there should be less subject choice. Putting more students into fewer courses will, in my experience, only exacerbate the feeling of isolation, which is already an issue in some 101 courses that have more than a thousand students.

Of course, none of this is helped by the skyrocketing cost of housing which has priced most students out of accommodation near University. Increasingly, it seems that the student experience is one of working part-time, punctuated by longer commutes to university from family homes further afield. It’s unsurprising that the prevailing attitude towards university is to stack the most classes onto the fewest days and spend the least amount of time possible on campus. This does not mean, however, that the prospect of a social life at university should be relegated to the past. If anything, the greater effort many students today put in, to support themselves, and in travelling greater distances to campus means that we deserve now, more than ever, to have a socially fulfilling university life.

The transactional nature of today’s corporatised university experience perpetuates a cycle of disengagement which deteriorates the entire process of teaching and learning. There is a dire need to foster genuine engagement in the courses that we came here to study. In the best tutorial I have had to date; when it became patently clear that, as it does in most classes, that hardly anyone had done the required readings, let alone had the slightest interest in the topic at hand, the tutor snapped. To paraphrase, “If you haven’t done the readings, get the fuck out of my class! I don’t mark attendance so you’re not only wasting my time, you’re wasting your own!” He forced half the class to stand up and leave, and most of them never returned.

This is the only seminar where I met anyone who I would speak to if I saw them on campus today. Our genuine engagement with the subject, and thus in discussions with one another, came about not through the management prescribed ‘attendance requirements’ and other pointless check boxes, but through one tutor’s desire for their students to take a real interest in the course content. I presume if other tutors were to take a similar line with attendance and participation, it would inspire similar results. However, this change must start with properly paying seminar tutors, as well as making it part of their job to help students engage with the subject in and out of the classroom; which would mean proper remuneration for work many casual academics already do, like replying to emails or making time for students out of class.

Coming out of the pandemic is the perfect time for a rethink of university social life. Our student body, more socially isolated than ever before, deserves more attention than some periodically announced, cringe-inducing coffee and chat sessions in Fisher or on Zoom cooked up by some low-rate HR professional. So, what can be done? Perhaps the organic ‘cohorts’ of times past are lost. Indeed, it seems that contemporary equivalents are only accessible to those who can afford to pay for them through residential colleges or expensive weekend camps run by societies. Surely, however, it is not beyond the middle-managers of the university, if they put their minds together, to engineer similar social circles that are accessible to all.

Why not start with putting more students who study the same subjects into more of the same tutorial classes? This would go some way to dividing first year students into informal ‘cohorts.’ Why stop there? Split all first-year students into explicit groupings of around 100, based on their subject choices. Hell, organise a social event to get them started! While you’re at it, rationalise the location of courses and academics on campus. Shock! Horror! Could you imagine actually having classes in the building of your faculty? Co-locating classes based on related subjects and departments might well lead to the common areas of those buildings serving as informal or unorganised meeting places for students and teachers. If ever there was an opportunity to reimagine how university might be a less isolating experience, now is the time to transform it back into an engaging, social environment for the pursuit of knowledge.

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