The social experiment: Our student life in the pandemic
'Kissing someone in the room was kind of like a violent act'
By Libby Elliott, Maisie Outhart and Ella Robinson
What was it like being a university student during the pandemic? Lots of studies and MPs’ reports have tried to answer that question with graphs and data about remote learning. But what was it actually like?
Which is to say, how did it feel? What really happened inside locked-down student blocks when we weren’t allowed to go out and everything turned absurdly, toxically inward? In the first year of Covid, two of us were starting our fresher’s year at the University of Manchester and one of us was starting our second year.
We’re not saying our experience was typical or even particularly interesting. In fact, we didn’t think it was interesting at all until an editor from The Mill heard us talking about what we went through and said we should turn it into a piece. Specifically, a piece that tries to focus on the social dimension rather than the academic — a story about how things played out on a personal level.
It’s a swirling mishmash of our memories and regrets and the things we’ve seen and heard along the way. It might be a bit of an unconventional way of doing journalism, but to be fair, it’s been an unconventional time.
Welcome to Oak House
If you want to know about what it was like to be a student in Manchester, you need to know about Oak House, a nondescript 1980s building on the Fallowfield campus. “Oak House is the daddy of Fallowfield's social life,” one review says online, and that’s about right. It’s not the biggest block of halls or the tallest – there are four storeys of flats surrounded by other dated-looking campus buildings. But it’s where things happened.
Even if you didn’t live in one of the decaying flats in Oak House, you probably went there for parties or saw clips of life there on Instagram. It’s where the best parties happened. And also where the destructive social dynamics set in.
Imagine a party in Oak House in the first term of 2020. You’ve got maybe 250 people crammed into a small flat. You’d be sweating and you could barely move, let alone dance. There’s one toilet and half the party is in the queue for it. Then someone would get word that the police or security were outside and they would shut the lights, turn off the music.
“Everyone shut up.”
As if that was going to help when a student DJ has been playing a “set” until a few seconds ago.
Sometimes people got fined; sometimes the police and security were so badly coordinated that nothing seemed to happen. Maybe they realised we were students stuck in our rooms all day with no outlet and reasoned: what else are they supposed to do?
The flat parties mattered a lot because for long periods during the pandemic, normal nightlife was closed. No clubs. No bars. No messy freshers’ nights at Deansgate Locks, wearing t-shirts with nametags and trying to meet a million people in a night.
In May 2020, when we were accepting offers and making plans to go to uni, we didn't know that by the autumn, things would be locking down again. We didn't know that it would be a whole year of clubs being closed and sports being off. Some people — “the gappies” — chose to defer their university place and take a gap year.
“Originally when we all went, we thought they were the mugs,” recalls one guy. “And then, very quickly, I was like: ‘Oh, no, we are the mugs.’”
By October, Fallowfield was in the national news as the country’s leading Covid hotspot. Chaos was setting in. Here’s how one girl remembers her first few weeks in Manchester. “We got locked in. And then we all got Covid. And then I couldn't taste. And then, to be real, my boyfriend phoned me up and dumped me.”
Whereas previous generations of students would meet every day at lectures and at the library, we sat in our rooms accessing our reading online. Lectures were video calls, some of which people slept through with their cameras turned off. By second term, you could book a socially distanced slot for an hour in the library.
So yes, the parties mattered. And as you can imagine, they also created a lot of tension. Technically, students were supposed to stay in their flats, their “bubble”. In reality, of course, most people couldn’t sustain that for long. Some flats could agree on whether to go to parties or not, but most didn’t. If someone was isolating because they were about to go and visit their family, should the others feel bad for going out? Should the one who was isolating feel bad for asking them not to?
Either way, everyone knew what they were missing. “If you didn’t go [to the parties], you could hear them,” one girl remembers. “It’s not like you could sleep.”
Fear of missing out
The parties were an outlet for boredom and frustration. But they also established a kind of high school stratification of cool groups. There were certain flats that always hosted – they were the BNOCs (translation: Big Names on Campus), who were often the DJs or good-looking rugby boys. That’s normal uni stuff, but in the pandemic it became extreme. The big question on the door was “Who do you know?”
Oak House was originally built for lower-income students but now it hosts plenty of people who went to private school. The BNOCs and DJs were generally private school. Not just private school, but generally London — North London, if we’re being precise.
Why them? They seemed to know a lot of people from London prior to coming to uni, which gives you a certain confidence when you arrive. And they were more savvy about drugs, which became a much bigger part of the student experience during Covid. The fact that so much socialising happened in flats meant more pressure to try drugs because you were much more beholden to what your flatmates wanted to do.
“In my friendship group at home and my social circle, nobody would touch drugs — we only really had started drinking in the past two or three years,” says one guy. “And then I came to uni, and it was almost patronising. It was almost getting patronised because you didn't have as much experience.”
Here’s how one person explains the social hierarchy. “There was a real like, private school, North London experience-with-DJing, experience-with-drugs, kind of like, ‘do you know this person? Oh, I know so-and-so through rugby.’ And it's hard to reject it, because then like, if you were to reject it, you're not going to have many mates.”
Still following? Ok, here’s another person describing how things worked. “From my perspective, if you weren't from London, or really good friends with someone from London who would invite you to everything, you were not in there.”
The fact that so much socialising took place in private parties rather than public clubs and bars significantly raised the stakes of social exclusion. People who knew people organising parties could take in a few friends, but what about those friends’ flatmates? “There was a lot of sentiment about that, which I completely understand,” one girl says, remembering how hurt some people felt about not being able to come to parties. “I've got a lot of regrets about how I handled that.”
Really, it was a social experiment. Put thousands of 18-year-olds together in an enclosed space, living in cramped flats, seeing the same randomly chosen people every day, with no clubs or societies or bars or clubs. And as one person put it, “the social experiment went really badly for most people.”
What quickly developed was a deeply cliquey and reactive social life where you would panic if you weren't invited to every single little thing. Everyone’s lives were so restricted and so enclosed and so comparable. You could hear the parties. You knew who was hanging out with who.
“I honestly think FOMO was huge,” says one person (translation: fear of missing out). FOMO is pretty normal, but trust us when we say, this was not normal. It is not normal to get annoyed at your housemate if they are going to socialise with another group of people and don't invite you.
The pattern of social exclusion was embedded by the flat parties, but later on things were compounded by the Rule of Six. Social exclusion round two. You might be going out for a meal with a group of people and if someone says, “Oh, can I come,” you have to say: “Sorry, we already agreed a six.” That’s not normal either.
You had a pretty good idea of where everyone was thanks to Snap Maps (translation: a feature on the app Snapchat that allows you to see exactly where your friends are at any time, via a map filled with little figures). If someone said they were chilling at home but they actually went to the pub with two other people you know, you could see that. If someone said they were going home to see their parents but actually they were in Bristol, where their ex-girlfriend goes to uni, you could see that too.
You could turn off Snap Maps, but then people would wonder why you had turned it off. “People did become a bit obsessive over what people were doing,” one person remembers. “In Oak House, it would be like, why are there 200 people here?”
For many people, spending so much time in flats together created incredible bonds – friendships that felt deeper and more tested than relationships you’ve had for ten years. But remember, for freshers who came to Manchester for their first year in 2020, they didn’t choose who they were living with. And suddenly, you were living with them every minute of the day.
What do people remember of that time? “The bitching!” says one girl. “The conversations about other people were just… everyone would just bitch about each other all the time. And I did this too. I'm not trying to get on my high horse about it. I don't know whether it was immaturity or the situation we were in but it was mad.”
It felt like a year-long summer camp. It was so, so enclosed. Getting irritated with your flatmates is normal. But normally you have an outlet – places to go and other people to speak to. Plus, there was much less to talk about – people didn’t have funny stories about weird guys they had met or sports matches their friends had played in. All news was flat news. Everything was internal.
“You're in a boiling pot,” says one person. “And I think that there came a point where people just wanted to be annoyed at other people. Because they were bored, and there was nothing to do.”
There was a sense that everything you were doing was being watched and noted by others, because we were all hanging out in such confined spaces. “If you're at a party with someone you're seeing or someone you fancy, chances are they have got with like two other girls in that room,” says one person. “Kissing someone in the room was kind of like a violent act.”
You heard similar things from friends at other universities, but not as bad. “Fallowfield as a social experiment was just mad, right?,” as one boy puts it. “Like when I look at the uni experiences of my friends who started elsewhere, none of them have been comparable to how shit went down here.”
People didn’t give in to the social experiment, though. They adapted in so many ways. Students – often second or third year students who had chosen to live together – replaced bar crawls with “house crawls”, turning each room into a different venue.
One house themed each room in their house around different bars and clubs in town that had been closed down. One house created a world tour, with each room decorated to be a different country. Holidays were big — everyone got dressed up for events like St Patrick’s Day and houses went all out for people’s birthdays. Karaoke was blaring out from everywhere. You weren’t going out, so all your money got spent on food.
“Obviously, it wasn't a dream scenario, but I think you bonded with people in different ways and truly found out about each other,” says one girl. “We all got dressed up or we’d do murder mystery or Cluedo in the house all night. We watched all the Twilight movies and then dressed up as Twilight characters. We had to find more creative ways to make it fun.”
Loads of Instagram accounts popped up to keep people entertained, like Oak House Meal ratings, where you would send in a picture of a meal you’d made and someone – whoever the anonymous person was who made the account – would rate it out of ten. There were similar accounts for showers, toilets and sinks.
There was one called Fallowfield Bait, where you’d send a video of yourself doing something stupid and it would get rated. It became like an alternative form of broadcast entertainment – DIY reality TV for bored people sitting in their rooms staring at their phones. One guy got dared to go and pull a mooney at Circuit Laundry and everyone could watch the videos of him going and doing it.
Certain people became very well known, even though most people had never met them. They became much bigger stars than they would have in a normal year. On Instagram, you’d vote for who the biggest BNOCs and then see pictures of them. You can probably guess how that fame played out.
“A lot of people fancied the same people,” explains one person. “And it got very like… I think it could get a bit cutthroat. The BNOCs and the DJs at the parties, they could pick whoever they want to pick in the room and there's probably a lot of people who want to get with them.”
If you didn’t meet people at parties, other opportunities for face-to-face meetings were limited. For some people, that meant “Sex was like slim pickings,” as one girl put it. But for others, there was Tinder — as long as you didn’t mind having someone over to your room without even meeting for a date.
One person remembers meeting a date from Tinder and then realising she didn’t find him attractive. And he’s just there, in her room. “You have to be like, leave my room. And I was just thinking, this is really odd. I don't know what to do.”
That’s another thing that adapted quite dramatically: dating. What were relationships like in the strange pandemic student world? “I don't know if that was just my personal experience, but the absolute pits,” one girl told us. “Like, I'm like struggling to find the words.”
It wasn’t just her experience. And we’ll try to find the words because this is a big topic among students to this day.
The first thing to know is that we had far fewer opportunities to meet like-minded students at societies or the student newspaper or at lectures. For the first year of Covid, all lectures were done over Zoom and most people didn’t ever turn their cameras on. In a lecture, there might be two or three people who turned their cameras on and asked questions and it probably illustrates how socially starved we were that that’s how some people first met friends and partners.
You would see people in your lecture on Zoom and if you liked the look of them, you would track them down via some careful searching on Instagram. One girl remembers messaging a few people from her lecture and arranging to meet up at Hatch on Oxford Road. “I was like, ‘we should go out. We would have all met each other [in non-Covid times]’”. When she met up with the group, one of whom she would soon start dating, it felt strangely exciting. “I had that awkward thing of like, I hadn't socialised in so long.”
The second thing you need to know is that something changed in the way people dated. Covid created a thing where you spent a lot of very time together with whoever you were seeing because you’re not doing anything else. You hung out all the time; you did your weekly shop together. That was intense and it was common to hear people say that they needed more space.
“I think the invention of the situationship has completely thrown everything on its head,” says one girl.
You might be wondering what the hell is a “situationship”? Welcome to one of the biggest talking points among students at the University of Manchester right now – mostly female students in straight relationships, but it can cut both ways. It’s kind of a stage before a fully committed relationship where a couple might do everything you’d expect a couple to do, but without labelling it as such and without the expectations of monogamy the average relationship carries with it. And it’s everywhere.
Here’s how one girl describes it: “I just hate how it's not just like you meet someone, you date them, then you're in a relationship. Now it's like you meet someone, usually you have sex with them, you're ‘talking’, then you're dating, then you're in a ‘situationship’ and then like if by some miracle maybe you’ll get a relationship out of it.”
Here's another description. “Guys will want to have all the benefits of being in a relationship without calling at one so that they can have a week off if they want. I almost think it's that the guys are like, I don't want to label it and I don't want to commit and I don't want to be held to account.”
Partly, this feels like a generational thing. But the pandemic conditions at uni made it noticeably worse. “The Covid thing normalised like hanging out as a very intimate couple, and then just kind of getting away with never doing it again,” explains one person. “I think it becomes a competition of who cares the least.”
Straight men who are willing to commit now get a lot of respect for doing something that is pretty normal. “If a man asked a girl out, like in a heterosexual setting these days, we’re all like wow, what a king,” bemoans one person. “Like, that's clapping a fish for swimming.”
A fitting ending
Two of us are supposed to be graduating right now, but god knows if we’re going to – the marking strike by lecturers means the university is yet to tell us whether we will ever get our grades. It’s a fitting ending to a strange time at uni, full of unprecedented twists and total chaos.
A lot of people are angry about leaving university with enormous debts – more than £50,000 for most people – having had so little in-person tuition and so much disruption. “I don’t know what I paid for,” says one boy. “I just want my money back.”
Others are sanguine about the debts – we knew what we were getting into – but annoyed about the experience. “For me, it's less about the money and more about how horrible I felt a lot of the time in first and second year,” a girl says. “I would have made so many decisions differently if it wasn't such an intense, enclosed experience. Put little 18-year-old me in that social experiment and it was not good.”
People are processing what happened in different ways. But right at the end, there’s something that unites us all — a poetic final twist of the knife which we learned about in an email from the university last week. How have we been compensated for a dysfunctional, disrupted, often miserable three years? With a free membership to an identity protection software — because the university is suffering a massive cyber attack. Perfect.
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