Disrupted mobilities: COVID-ising the university student experience

By Kirsty Finn, Manchester Metropolitan University, & Mark Holton, University of Plymouth 

Students across the UK are (re)entering a transformed university landscape, with curriculum, campuses, social activities, and living spaces altered beyond recognition as a result of, now familiar, COVID-19 restrictions. Perhaps surprisingly, and certainly despite concerns that young people would stay away this year, research by WONKHE suggested that 2020 enrolments would not be diminished, with only one in five students electing not to attend university this year. The A Level fiasco in August led to a further squeezing of student capacities at some leading institutions, as places were denied, only to be later reinstated, causing concern about rising numbers and compounding fears about how socially distant the new student experience might be.  

Yet, while the appetite for university appears not to have waned amidst the pandemic, as the new term commences COVID-19 is already playing a central role, with students at several universities experiencing a far from smooth transition into independent living. The media is replete with reports of significant outbreaks in student accommodation blocks, triggering restrictions to limit movement and contact among young people, and the threat of incarceration during the winter vacation

This transformation of student mobility and the student experience opens up important geographies, particularly relating to the impacts that isolation – both voluntary and imposed – has upon sociability, connectivity, and mental health. Indeed, young people are considered one of the most at-risk generations from the negative effects of COVID-19. Moreover, given the ways in which higher education is itself thought to conjure future and further mobilities (through international study placements etc.) COVID-19 ushers in a new imaginary of mobility for the current student body.  

Disrupted mobilities 

COVID-19 has re-emphasised debates surrounding student mobilities – revealing important contradictions in how students’ movements are simultaneously desired, persuaded, restricted, and discounted. Students in 2020 are encouraged to consume campuses that provide little of the well-established attraction associated with the student experience, such as social clubs, nightlife, sports and community engagement. Moreover, COVID-19 restrictions and mini lockdowns in student accommodation have vastly disrupted students’ mobilities, with universities offering so much yet delivering very little. In a recent Geography Compass article, Alice Reynolds writes about the exclusivities formed through neoliberalised purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) spaces through their design, placement and consumption. Yet, under the conditions of COVID-19, student accommodation has, for many, become carceral, with several institutions effectively incarcerating students in their accommodation to prevent the spread of the virus

This discourse of incarceration, and indeed the visual representations of students’ distress and ‘imprisonment’ which dominate the media, come, of course, from the position of the residentially-mobile student, whose trajectories are imagined around the ‘boarding school’ model of participation. As we have argued elsewhere this narrative only serves to normalise certain mobility acts, whilst relegating others (i.e. that of local and commuter students) to the margins. There has, for example, been scant consideration of how the COVID-19 restrictions, under which students as a seemingly homogenous cohort have been placed, impact upon those who do not live in university accommodation and who rely on part-time employment in service sectors such as retail, hospitality and, agency care-work. COVID-19 and the disrupted mobilities that are documented in the media work to further entrench representations of students as residentially (and even, termly) mobile, discounting all of the many and varied ways in which mobility is increasingly part of the everyday lives of a diverse student cohort.

South Courts student accommodation, Colchester Campus, University of Essex.
Photo Credit: John Ben Hall (Wikimedia Commons). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Bubbles and forced cohortness 

In its oversight of the diversity of students’ everyday mobilities, national and institutional policy quickly formulated to regulate student interactions amidst COVID-19 has sought to contain students within particular cohorts or ‘bubbles’ to manage them back onto ‘secure’ campuses.  The notion that higher education experiences will be contained within, and defined by, student accommodation and the peers they are housed with is, of course, antithetical to much of the thinking about student mental health, wellbeing, and belonging, as well as established understandings of capital accumulation. Indeed, the literature on student belonging, wellbeing and (in the case of commuter and non-traditional students in particular) attrition rates has stressed the importance of on campus activities and involvement in social, sports and civic organisations. By the same token, other markers of success, such as future employability and earnings are strongly linked to experiences of mobility either within the immediate community as part of outreach and volunteering programmes and international study abroad opportunities. With this array of activities and practices of capital accumulation now inaccessible for the wider student demographic rather than just local or commuter students, there is the potential for more productive conversations about how students’ sense of belonging and success might be reimagined going forward. We have argued elsewhere that belonging is often tied to bounded spaces of the institution and COVID-19 thus presents an opportunity to consider how feelings of attachment and comfort might be cultivated away from the spaces of nightlife, leisure and social and political clubs that many newcomers to HE are unable or not interested in participating in. 

We are not suggesting that meaningful, in-person connections are to be abandoned in the new landscape. In a 2019 issue of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Brown and Kraftl talk of the importance students place upon producing and practicing ‘cohortness’ whilst at university and we support this point. This idea holds particular significance when considering how and where young students perform and manage their identities during term-time. Nonetheless, student bubbles and forced cohortness risk repeating the mistakes of the past by neglecting to consider the diversity of student mobilities and to think in more creative ways about what constitutes meaningful connections to institutions – and to learning – and how this might enhance future career capital for a more diverse cohort of students. 

About the authors: Kirsty Finn is Reader in Learning and Teaching within the department of Accounting, Finance and Banking at the Business School at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she leads the education strategy as part of the Senior Management Team. Mark Holton is Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Plymouth, where he is also Employability Lead for Geography, Deputy Lead for SoGEES, and the Stage One Tutor for Geography 

Suggested further reading 

Finn, K., and Holton, M. (2019). Everyday mobile belonging: Theorising higher education student mobilities. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Fleuret, S., and Prugneau, J. (2015). Assessing students’ wellbeing in a spatial dimension. The Geographical Journal, 181(2), 110-120.  

Reynolds, A. (2020). Geographies of purpose built student accommodation: Exclusivity, precarity and (im)mobility. Geography Compass  

Brown, G., and Kraftl, P. (2019). Theorising cohortness: (Mis)Fitting into student geographies. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 44(3), 616-632. 

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