“I’m going back to a community, but I don’t really know anyone,” Lois Lawn tells The Independent.
After moving into university halls last year, she decided to go back home in November and – two lockdowns later – is still there.
As England was sent into its third lockdown in early January, most students were told to stay put – while many were still at home for the Christmas holidays – and their teaching pushed online. Only those on certain courses, like medicine and dentistry, could continue with face-to-face classes.
But that is expected to change from next month, when all students on practical courses – like Lawn – are allowed to return to campus.
“I didn’t enjoy my experience when I first went,” the student at Surrey University tells The Independent. “I’m quite nervous to go back because I don’t want it to be the same.”
She says she “hated” the weeks she spent on campus last term amid the pandemic, which led her to move back home in November.
“I was spending all day in my room, and having to study in my room, and there was nowhere to go,” she says.
As universities welcomed students back last autumn, courses were pushed online, overwhelmingly or fully in some cases, and students faced restrictions on socialising due to the pandemic.
From the few weeks she was on campus, Lawn says she only managed to make a few friends, and made it to a few socially distanced society meetings.
“I’m quite nervous about going back because I don’t really know anyone,” she says.
Some students, like Lawn, were at home for England’s lockdown in November, after which students were advised to leave campus a week in early December to make it back in time for Christmas holidays.
When the third lockdown hit, only students on certain courses – such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science – were allowed to return to face-to-face classes.
With those on practical courses allowed back from 8 March, Gavin Williamson, the educational secretary, estimates around 40 per cent of the student population will be returning.
But Darcey Edkins, a final-year student at Warwick University, will be stuck home for even longer, as her course does not fall under this bracket.
She has been at home since early December and says it looks like she will not be going back until after the Easter holidays.
It has been “really tough”, she tells The Independent. “I feel like I have missed out on my ‘university experience’. It honestly feels like I have wasted £9,000 on an online course,” she says.
“I’m hoping to travel back as soon as I can and will likely stay at university during the summer to make up for lost time with my friends,” she adds.
Another student who has been at home for months is Luke Carter, a first year at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).
He left his university flat – shared with one other person – to go home in October, as he was finding university life “very isolating”. There was not many opportunities to meet people and socialise, he says.
The first year has been at home since, through two lockdowns and the Christmas holidays.
He says he is in a “very lucky position” to be in a “decent home” where he can concentrate on work. “But obviously I would rather not be paying the rent for a place I’m not allowed to live in due to the government,” he tells The Independent.
His university has offered a 30 per cent rent reduction for the rest of the year, which Carter – who is running his university rent strike campaign – has rejected, claiming the terms and conditions means he cannot get any further discount.
He says he feels “cheated” to be paying current rates for accommodation he spent a few weeks in, before going home and being unable to return for term.
“I feel used for basically my entire student loan, which constitutes only a sliver of their [the university’s] finances,” he says.
Universities have offered different forms of support for students in their accommodation during lockdown.
Meanwhile, Caitlin Airey, a student at the University of Birmingham, is still at home from the Christmas holidays – and says the university waiving rent for weeks she has not been in accommodation has been a silver lining.
“It’s not brilliant working at home, but I’m saving a lot of money,” she says.
“I don’t really feel like there’s much point being at university when I can’t see any of my friends so it’ll be nice to get a change of scene when I go back, but I’m not absolutely desperate,” the first year tells The Independent.
Soutiam Goodarzi , a first year at Oxford University, is also still at home after Christmas.
“I’m missing my friends,” she tells The Independent. ‘“There wasn’t much on at university anyway because of lockdown, but we at least got to hang out in our households.”
A University of Warwick spokesperson said the university has followed government rules during the pandemic, and hopes the roadmap out of lockdown will allow more students to resume face-to-face teaching next term.
The University of Surrey and QMUL were approached for comment.