Students need safe spaces now more than ever

When lockdown began, the naïves among us (such as myself) held dearly onto the idea that the country was going to be back to normality by the time we’d have to welcome our new cohort of students.

All too quickly, as the lockdown lengthened into the summer, students’ unions’ staff realised that not only we had to change the rules of the game, but that we had to change the game altogether. With the pandemic still looming invisible among us, dire financial forecasts and the uncertainty of ever-changing government regulations, the prospect and the need to create something completely different and still palatable to our students was object of concern and stress.

Once it became clear that the university was pushing ahead with bringing students back to Bath in person, creating a unique and appealing Freshers’ Week was a strategic priority to maintain the safety of students and the community they live in. In-person activities needed to be on the agenda if we were to at least try and allow students to have fun in a safe and rewarding way.

Merriment

By the middle of summer, we all watched with concern news videos of people crowded in streets outside pubs, as soon as lockdown restrictions started being lifted – the immediate lesson learnt was that social distancing and safety were going to be the first things to go out the window as soon as people had had a few drinks.

It was important, therefore, to innovate and diversify our offer to veer it away from drinking, something that was easy to rely on in past Freshers’ Weeks. The certainty of this shift was also supported by the knowledge that incoming generation of Generation Z students were apparently less inclined to drink, smoke, and go out.

The SU invested in a quality, interactive, and diverse online provision with a mixture of live and pre-recorded acts and challenges that household groups could get watch and get involved in. This was hugely supported by student groups offering in-person activities such as walks with the Mountaineering club, music acts from our Music Society, board games evenings, and so forth.

It’s a knockout

The biggest innovation was the conversion of the sports hall, where normally the SU would host the main club night throughout Freshers’ Week, into a daytime activities arena with games of all sorts such as table football, inflatables, video games, pool, and other activities in an arcade style. In all, it was a pretty wholesome offer that we could be rightly proud of.

A significant boost to our provision came at the eleventh hour, following news reports of large gatherings, raves and outbreaks in colleges in the United States and in scottish universities, which were a couple of weeks ahead than the ones in England. It was a stark reminder that, despite an apparent shift in behaviour in a younger generation, students (just like any other adult section of the population) still drank.

Following up on our concerns about the overall lack of capacity on campus, the university quickly realised that, in the absence of a safe, monitored, Covid-proof space, students would have just turned to riskier alternatives.

We’re all villagers now

Providing that space for students to drink, listen to music, and start bonding became an institutional priority. With an injection of funds and hands on support from the accommodation team and others in what was a genuine partnership approach, The SU bars and events team created the “East Village”, a group of covered outdoor venues with six-maximum, socially distanced tables for 600 students to come, listen to music, have a drink and fun with their new friends.

Whilst the original plan was to allow for these venues to open until late in the evening, as we would traditionally during a Freshers’ Week, aside from our launch night on the Weds before restrictions came in, the new regulations meant that we could only keep those venues open until 10 PM. The idea of bringing the city to the campus proved appealing to students as well as local businesses.

Traditional nightclub venues, which have suffered huge losses over the last six months, were contacted and asked to dress and staff some of the marquees erected in the East Village, to provide a variety of venues to our students as well as to aid local venues in dire need of a cash injection.

There are key lessons to be learnt here. Our experience of re-inventing Freshers’ Week has shown that a different type of Freshers’ Week is possible, but mostly, that students are eager to engage in alternative activities. Whilst providing spaces for students to socialise over a drink is still relevant, impressive turnouts have been seen at various other events which were completely unrelated to alcohol consumption, chiefly the Activities Arena, which students have thoroughly enjoyed with strong turnout rates.

This may be obvious to those of us who live and breathe SUs, but it has become even clearer that enhancing and resourcing the student experience, and SUs’ role in shaping and facilitating it, must be a key strategic object for universities across the country. Whilst this article focuses on incoming students, we aim to expand our East Village and open our doors to continuing students as well. This would not have been possible without the collaboration and attention our university management has given over the past few months to the SU and its aim to make students feel part of a community.

Space age

What has also become all the more apparent is that students need their spaces in order to be able to thrive, form communities, develop a sense of belonging, and have a more satisfactory student experience.

Universities looking at resourcing the student experience via SUs must provide student groups with suitable spaces where to carry out events and activities. Students who have travelled to universities are not going to suddenly stop needing to socialise just because Freshers’ Week is over – to mitigate the potential of further outbreaks occurring, institutions must provide students’ unions with physical spaces (be that rooms, marquees, or sporting facilities) where students can expand their social circles in Covid-safe environments through their clubs and societies. More than ever, this must become a strategic priority.

This isn’t to say that, with appropriate resourcing in terms of money and space, all issues will magically disappear. Operationally speaking, for instance, the 10 PM rule is not helpful at all, and it would be incredibly stupid to believe that young people would all just go home and get an early one simply because venues have closed.

As we have seen from instances across the sector, but also city-centres generally, the absence of safe and suitable spaces drive risky behaviour – it has become our job to reinvent and expand our activities as much as possible to appeal and retain students within our spaces. A change in policy here would be a smart move, not just on campus but in city centres too.

Students are here

Early on, the Government created the environment whereby universities had no real choice but to fling their doors open and bring large amounts of students onto their campuses and cities in the middle of a global pandemic. With no financial support or direction around switching to online provision, the market has dictated that students would be brought into the firing line in the battle against Covid.

With students here, and with their safety and that of the local communities they inhabit in mind, universities must urgently resource the unique insight students’ unions have in facilitating the student experience, and support with new levels of partnership working. Institutions that don’t are creating a void that could put the safety of the community at risk.

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