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Opinion: The Grimm reality of online university

This year has been artificially constructed to the extent that its narrative no longer qualifies for the history books. Instead, it feels like something out of a Grimm brothers fairy tale.

Our lives have changed faster than we ever could have ever imagined. Instead of parents scolding us for living on our phones, they’ve become our only means of familial interaction.

University has become a £9250+ FaceTime session. In the words of a second year Ancient History and Archaeology student, it is officially the most expensive streaming service of the year. 

The tables have turned against us. A system that once was meant to boost our market value has commodified us for profit. And to make matters worse, not only are we traded like animals at an auction, we’re locked up like them too.

Continuing the fairy tale metaphor, university is the candy cottage. Our career prospects are the sweet treats that adorn it, and students are the unsuspecting Hansel and Gretel, being fattened up only to be thrown into the oven and served up to an already satiated witch. Our lack of experience, plus the decimated job market, equals aimlessly climbing the education beanstalk in hopes of one day being able to outwit the corporate giant and bring home the golden egg – aka an actual job. 

Our career prospects are the sweet treats that adorn it, and students are the unsuspecting Hansel and Gretel, being fattened up only to be thrown into the oven and served up to an already satiated witch.

Our futures are not looking bright. The present is falsely illuminated in the red glow of a government appointed traffic light tier system. This throws our work-life balance into a disarray comparable only to that of a car crash.

Still, it could be argued that the red light is better than the blue one seeping into our retinas from extensive lectures and an overcompensating workload. As an anonymous second year drama student explains, “It’s so much harder to have some time off when there aren’t loads of ways to spend it”. It’s even more difficult when our social circle and support systems extend no further than fictional characters on our screens. 

If our problems were as fictional as our social lives, our troubles would seem obsolete. With our most committed relationships being our Netflix subscriptions, it’s hard to turn attention to the new drama – online courses.

The university has sent us into what feels like a YouTube rabbit hole with no clear end in sight. No matter how much we love our favourite series, after 6 weeks of continuous streaming, we are bound to lose interest. The same is happening with our beloved courses.

Our generation opts for a series binge of 40 minute episodes instead of a 90 minute film. The mental hurdle of hour-plus long recordings is more than enough to curb our motivation, making us press snooze on our alarms. It doesn’t help that if we do emerge from the safety of our beds it’s only to travel halfway across the room. 

No matter how much we love our favourite series, after 6 weeks of continuous streaming, we are bound to lose interest. The same is happening with our beloved courses.

Instead of the blended learning we were falsely promised, our work and social spaces have been merged into one: our overpriced student rooms.

With the university relying solely on societies to form stable communities, it’s no wonder members feel unimaginative. They resort to simple and overused Zoom pub quizzes. That is unless you play a contact sport, in which it seems like football’s red card can take precedence over the red warning light of tier-3.

We’ve entered a new age of learning. Asking scientists to write limericks instead of lab reports and classicists to exchange books for ‘Blackboard’ bibliographies. While we laugh at our inadequacy on the outside, the reality is we’re just about as stable as our WiFi connections. We’re caught in a cycle of continuously adding to our overbearing workload.

As one student puts it, “I wake up anxious, I go to bed anxious”. We would almost welcome a power cut, if only for some brief relief. 

No doubt, as a nation, we’re having a mental health crisis. Even with all the help out there, the hardest hurdle is being able to ask for it. Never has Simon Bolivar’s dying refrain “Damn it! How will I ever get out of this Labyrinth?” rung truer, than when we are frantically scouring our inboxes for the breadcrumb trail of wellbeing support pages as we suffer in silence. 

Any students at the University of Manchester struggling mental health can access support through the university here, or contact Nightline here.

Tags: Mental Health, online teaching, Societies, student life, university

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