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Manchester University: 'It doesn't feel like we're at uni'

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
media captionBen McGowan is 18 and living in halls in Fallowfield in Manchester

Online lectures, no freshers' raves, a metal fence put up around your halls - it's safe to say life at the University of Manchester in 2020 is nothing like students expected.

Those living in the Fallowfield halls woke up to workers putting "huge metal barriers" around their accommodation.

It sparked a protest that one student said was the result of "tension that's been building over the last couple of months".

Another student told Radio 1 Newsbeat uni life in a pandemic had become "overwhelming".

image copyrightBen McGowan
image captionThe "prison-like" fencing at Manchester University sparked a protest by students

'A big break in trust'

Ben McGowan is 18 and studying politics and sociology at Manchester.

"Being here feels like I'm just in a hall halfway across the country, occasionally doing some Zoom calls," he says.

"When we got here, we hadn't been told that it would all be online, we'd been told lectures would be in person - that was a big break in trust."

Ben took part in the protest over the fence being put up.

"There was a lot of tension that's been building over the last couple of months, there's been a lot of issues.

"So waking up and being surrounded by fencing was really a tipping point for people.

"I know it's not technically our homes, but we do live here and pay money to live here. You don't want to wake up one day, be surrounded and feel like you're in a prison."

image copyrightBen McGowan
image captionBen said students were far from home and feeling isolated

The pandemic has had a major impact on mental health in the UK, with young people particularly at risk.

Ben wants his university to take more consideration over students' mental health.

"Now we're getting back into lockdown, there's definitely going to be even more issues.

"People are thousands of miles away from home with people they just met, people are isolated.

"I've not seen any outreach apart from a generic phone number that you can call if you're feeling bad but no-one does that.

"We were meant to get wellbeing check-ups but I don't know anyone that's had one."

'We shouldn't have to ask for support'

image copyrightEva Humphry
image captionEva is originally from London but moved to Manchester for university

Eighteen-year-old Eva Humphry is finding it challenging to keep up with her work during these tough times.

She is studying social sciences at Manchester and says it's nothing like she imagined.

"We were expecting blended learning [online and face-to-face lessons] this year, that's why a lot of us moved into halls.

"Uni has been overwhelming, in terms of what we've been put through and what we have to do for work, but underwhelming in all the expectations you have when you come to university."

A couple of weeks ago, Eva's bedroom in her halls flooded because of a damaged pipe.

It ruined some of her things and she said it had a negative impact on her mental health.

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"It was dirty, hot water that smelled really bad, and the smell got worse in the next few days because no-one cleaned it up.

"Before the flood, I was just catching up on everything, I felt like my life was almost together and then I ended up having to sleep on the floor. It was really stressful and overwhelming."

Like Ben, Eva feels the university has provided little mental health support.

"They called me once to ask how my well-being was and then said 'I'm sorry, I'm sure it must be very stressful for you, have a nice day, bye'.

"I felt like it was quite a half-hearted attempt."

She didn't attend the fence protests but says she was "disgusted" when she saw it going up.

"We had no idea what was going on because they they didn't tell us, it was very scary."

The University of Manchester said the mental wellbeing of students was of the "utmost importance".

It also apologised "for the concern and distress caused" by the fence.

A spokesperson said: "Students can access an online mental health support platform, Togetherall, that provides real-time support and this will soon be complemented by a 24/7 mental health support phone line available to all out students and staff.

"Beyond that, more focused support is offered by support teams in schools and residences, who offer face-to-face initial support and active referral onto the further steps."

They added: "We have a clear escalation route for students in crisis and strong links with local NHS mental health services. This includes the innovative university and NHS partnership, Greater Manchester university student mental health service pilot.

"The programme has just completed its first year of a two-year pilot and has been open throughout the pandemic, offering face-to-face and remote sessions."

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