Beth Walker discusses the controversial post by the University of Manchester: "Don't see this as a lockdown, but as a retreat".
A retreat can be defined as a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax. It is then no surprise that students were both bewildered and outraged at an Instagram post by the University of Manchester in January which told students: “Don’t see this as a lockdown, but as a retreat”. The post itself was in effort to promote positive thinking and advice for students coping with mental health during lockdown. On this occasion the University very much missed the mark and it was soon removed in response to the social media backlash to their tone-deaf recommendations. Although they acknowledged their misstep, it is unfortunately not the first instance that students have felt neglected and found inadequacies in the University’s support throughout these challenging times.
I would like to unpack the University’s use of the word “retreat”. In some respect what students are experiencing does fit the first half of the definition, quiet and seclusion, only the nature of this is not positive for most individuals. There has been an epidemic of loneliness amongst students due to social distancing, with many experiencing the deafening silence of lockdown life and feelings of isolation. This academic year has been a sharp contrast from typical life for young people studying in the city. The vibrant nightlife and the mixing of people has been stopped, these restrictions have arguably hit first-year students hardest, since meeting new people and going out is intrinsic to the student experience and the transition from living at home to halls. Feelings of seclusion were certainly heightened to entrapment during the incident at Fallowfield Campus in November. The protests and tearing down of fences demonstrated the frustration shared amongst so many who felt let down by the University who arguably considered their monetary value over their emotional and mental needs.
The latter part of the definition of retreat, rest and relaxation, is a juxtaposition to the reality of the student experience this academic year. I speak for myself and I am sure others when I say that lockdown has compounded the stress of work. When you look at the circumstances in black and white it could be suggested that students have more free time to get stuck into their academic work due to restrictions on several other daily activities. On the other hand, the fact that there is so little else to focus your mind on has intensified work pressures for many people. The move from in-person teaching to online was a necessary measure, but consequently students miss out on aspects of student life which are not so obvious yet are still important to well-being. For example, conversations with peers before and after lectures and seminars, or even the passive unwinding on a bus journey or walk to and from the University. Engaging with online materials can also prove stressful and demotivating, for some it takes a lot of mental effort to concentrate on a pre-recorded lecture instead of physically being on campus in a learning environment. The University’s post was so poignant as it came during exam season where students were being held to equal academic expectations as they would any other year but felt a large degree of stress and at a disadvantage, largely attributed to the pressures of remote learning and online exams.
I would like to propose an alternative definition of retreat, an act of moving back or withdrawing. At a glance on social media, you can see students nationwide discussing dropping out or prospective students considering deferring until lockdown is a thing of the past, this reflects the overwhelming sense that young people have been let down by the higher education system and as a result some are withdrawing. However, by applying the same definition I wish to highlight a recent retreat by the University, who after much student pressure agreed to a new assessment pledge. This is a step in the right direction and should help to alleviate a level of stress for some students. The upcoming vote of no confidence called by the University of Manchester Students’ Union for Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell could see again another retreat if she withdraws from her position. For many this would signal a positive change in what feels like a battle between the University of Manchester and its students who want clarity, support and reasonable academic expectations during the pandemic.
Beth Walker is a second-year Law with Politics student with interests in diplomatic relations, intergovernmental organisations and domestic and international public law.