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How first-year students are changing the university experience

Last Updated: 05 Mar, 2021

UK Study Centre spoke with first-year student Jay S. about his experiences at university so far and what he feels about his future.

By Vica Granville

Last week, PM Boris Johnson announced the government’s roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions in England. This included a confirmation that universities will be open again for face-to-face learning. A later announcement also confirmed that final-year exam results will be decided by teachers.

Following on from our last profile, where we interviewed a final-year student about how they feel about their future, we decided to interview a first-year student about their experiences so far, and their feelings on these new developments. Jay S. is a first year at Leeds Arts University, where he is studying Fine Art.


What did a day in the life of a first-year student look like in the winter term? Has that changed this term?

“I was really lucky because I was doing a practical course. Art and Design, and things like that, were put in the same bracket as Medicine. So, I was really fortunate to be inside the university at least three times a week until December 9th. It allowed for structure and actual distinction between weekdays and weekends.

After Christmas, we were no longer bracketed as important as the Medicine students — which I completely understand. It meant that we were completely online. Luckily enough, because we had that first term of meeting our tutors, we had established a relationship with them. Meanwhile, many of my friends in my year hadn’t met anyone yet, so they always had a weird disconnect from their tutors. Being online, there are always problems with people not turning on their cameras, and staying in bed because it’s easier, or not being able to wake-up on time.

Also, because I need to make things, I had to do it within the constraints of my accommodation kitchen, which isn’t great. It would be so much nicer to be able to go into the studio and have enough space to construct things over a larger scale...a larger size than what I’m able to do. With workshops as well, we had all our introductions to workshops and did the kind of process of getting introduced to things like metalware and exciting new gadgets, but as soon as we could book space, we were told we weren’t allowed to.

These are the sorts of differences that have appeared over time. Luckily, we were just told last week that on the 8th March we are back into full swing. So, I’ll be going in again three to four times per week, which I’m really looking forward to.”


As you took a gap year, you were lucky enough to enjoy your final-year of school pre-Covid. Do you have any friends who faced uncertainties last year over A-levels? What can you tell us about the difference between your and their experience?

“A lot of my friends are on the foundation course currently in Leeds, so they’ve actually come straight from A-levels.

I think that it’s led to some people being on courses which they might not have been on, had they sat the exams. It might be a good thing, because I often struggle with exams — having dyslexia and things like that. They seem to have taken it back to judging someone through their verbal reasoning, which is much more like the American system. Then again, when the results came out in August last year, there were a lot of problems with people getting unfair/unjust grades, which I think was really bad. Then they did a complete U-turn on that and, kind of, came back completely on themselves and said you’ll just get your predicted grades. That definitely confused people, and I don’t think it prepared them well for university.

I think the difference may be more present in more academic subjects, because even the knowledge won’t be the same from previous years because they missed out on a lot of teaching. A lot of teaching happens from March to June time, it’s often the hardest stuff because they leave it right to the end. It’s usually the icing on the cake that explains everything that you’ve already learnt, and I think there will be a gap between those who did A-levels and those who didn’t. I think it will appear in about five years, once people have gone through the university system. It will be interesting to see if there will be a gap...hopefully there won’t be, because I think that would be really damaging.

My year group spans through many different age groups. I have friends who are 21 and others who are 18. I just hope that it won’t be the case that the older people will do better in the end than the younger people, because they have had a stronger foundation from which to build on.”


As you’ve already mentioned, it’s fair to say that last summer, GCSE and A-level results were in utter shambles. First, they were graded by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual announced a U-turn which allowed for teacher predictions instead. This summer, all results will be based on teachers, as the government puts more and more trust in them. Some people think this will inflate grades, allowing forRussell Group universities to accept even more students, leaving less chances for other universities. What do you think? Do you think that this system favours students or universities, or both? And in terms of final-year exams, is there anything you would have preferred to have seen the government do?

“I think it will definitely affect both students and universities in ways that won’t be seen in a little while. Personally, I’ve only been at university since September, but I’ve developed so much through that time. I hope that other people also grow a lot in that time, so the gap that exists at the beginning, hopefully won’t be so prevalent 5-6 months into the course.

I guess in terms of Russell Group universities dominating the intake, I think it might be quite good for the students. But, I know quite a few people who are incredibly smart, and have always been incredibly smart, but can’t do exams, and they often go to non-Russell Group universities.  They end up excelling quite well because those universities tend to be smaller and have greater one-to-one relationships with students. Also, those universities can experiment with their teaching methods and really focus on the student, and not necessarily solely on results or research. So, I think it may lead to a gap between Russell and non-Russell Group universities. But then, it could also allow people who may not have been able to go to university in the past to go to university now, because of their grades.

But, then again, I guess there’s a risk that it may make it so that universities ask for even higher grades in their offers, which may prevent students from getting in. There may be hidden knowledge between schools and universities that students may not be privy to.

Basically, I think, when there isn’t standardisation there’s room for bias. At the end of the day, standardised exams provide an equal playing field for everyone, and help to bridge the gap for people from state schools and those from boarding or private schools. That’s extremely important because it connects people who come from completely different backgrounds.”


A professor at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, recently wrote about how students have been denied the overall university experience. How the focus has had to be on formal education, and that, therefore, students have missed out on, in his own words “bad beer, gigs” “student bars and parties”. Do you feel like you’ve missed out, and have been denied the student memories that you deserve?

“I think I’ve been denied anticipated student memories. I think we’ve created new types of memories that aren’t necessarily in a crowded gig, or at a bar, but much more situated within our accommodation. There is a greater emphasis on your flat, and who you’re with in the flat. I think that has led to some people missing out a bit, but, personally, I’ve had a really nice flat, and my accommodation has a great sense of community. You walk into the courtyard and you’ll speak to everyone you bump into.

The other day was the first sunny day in Leeds in quite a while. We all got our sketchbooks out and went into the courtyard and played some music. We all sat there for a couple of hours and just drew and painted together. Things like that make me feel that the actual idea of what university is like, might shift. I don’t think we’re being denied the university experience, I think we’re being offered a different type of university experience. But I think that’s very personal and it’s what you make of it.

It’s just very contextual isn't it? I’ll have very different memories of first year than previous generations have. I think it’s allowed for quite important friendships to blossom really quickly, because it’s quite an intense atmosphere where you’re spending all day with the same group of people. You can’t go inside the university, so the only people I know on my course are the ones who live in my accommodation. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad though, because you spend more time putting effort into smaller friendship groups, which has huge benefits.

We’re also able to make our own fun in the flat. We have games nights, film nights, what we call “boogies” when we dance around the flat. We also go on nice walks and get takeaway from places. I feel like I’ve seen more of Leeds than I would have if it hadn’t been for Covid, because I would have spent my nights in clubs and pubs, and maybe slept all day, rather than spend the day visiting the city. You feel a greater incentive to do those things because those are the only things you can do.

The first term we went to all the pubs you’d normally go to, we just didn't get to go to the clubs. I’m not that into clubbing so that was fine for me. There’s definitely a rising anticipation now for those places to open up in the summer, though. I definitely agree with what that professor said, but I think we’ve been denied the historic standpoint of a uni experience, but we’ve managed to be innovative and create our own memories that may be more lasting because we haven’t been hideously drunk, or staying out until the early hours of the morning.”


Do you talk about mental health with your peers? What are some coping mechanisms you’ve found really work to help make things a little more bearable?

“Most definitely. We talk about it a lot. I think, especially being in an Arts accommodation, a lot of people are outspoken about mental health because, often, their practice and their work is about their mental health. Personally, me and my friend have gone through things at points, being in a confined space. Especially, in the last two weeks our lift broke, and we’re on the ninth floor, so it’s been hard to find the motivation to get outside. Also, things like, the windows are quite small and they don’t open much so you can feel quite trapped. I think, for the most part, people feel comfortable enough to raise issues or speak up when they’re not feeling great. I think we’ve all managed to support each other in a nice way. I even have this thing with one of my friends that if one of us is looking down, we make an appointment to meet up in the courtyard to have a chat about it. Things like that are quite important.

I’ve taken up doing a lot of breathing and yoga exercises. My anxiety leads to my chest getting quite tight and a way of dealing with that for me is to stretch it out. We also do a lot of walking. I think what’s great about Leeds as a city, it’s really easy to get away from the main part of the city to a place that’s quite green. I remember walking along the canal one day, we got to Armley Park...and I remember taking a breath and realising how much cleaner the air felt to the air just 20 minutes down the road. I think having that knowledge allows me to feel like I can free myself and I can escape anything when I want to.

And hopefully...I was meant to start football last term, but when they closed all the pitches because of Covid it meant that no one was able to play, which is quite unfortunate. Doing something like football with your uni mates, there’s the obvious benefits of exercise, but also the social aspect that comes with it too is really important. So, I’m really looking forward to having that in the future.”

Jay's art

What do you hope will change for your second year? If the virus persists, is there anything you would do differently?

“Personally, I’m really really looking forward to using the facilities. My university is one of the leading specialist universities, especially in the North, for Art. They have these amazing concrete, wood and metal workshops that I’ve walked through but never touched. I think I’m really looking forward to spending extended periods of time playing around with things.

I also think collaborative projects, and being able to work with other people from other courses and other halls, and be allowed to do it in a practical and physical sense, would be great! I think that’s where the greatest works of art come from: collaboration. That’s become really stagnant because we have to stay in our bubbles, and if you meet someone that you want to do a project with but if you’re not in the same bubble you can’t work with them.

The freedom of working with who you want to work with, and actually going to university with my actual work, not with photos of my work, would be so much fun. My tutors have never seen any of my work in person. Especially for me, someone whose work is very much about texture and space and occupying space, it’s really important to be able to be immersed in that, not just see a screen representation of it.

If the virus persists, I think I would take up more of what the university offers in terms of actual space. Since Christmas, they’ve said to us, if you’re unable to produce work at home or in your halls, you’re allowed to book studio space, but you’re not allowed to interact with the tutors. I guess out of guilt and not wanting to overstep boundaries, I didn’t label myself as exempt. I didn’t take up the opportunity to go into the studio and work in the studio space because, even though I was qualified and allowed to do it, I felt badly about that. So, I think if it does persist I would do everything possible within Covid regulations to use those spaces.

Also to use things like the library and take out books, which I haven’t done because I naively thought that it’s an all-or-nothing thing. It’s either all online or all in person. We tested it out last week, and we walked in and scanned our cards and were in the studio for three to four hours. It was great. I would use everything that the university can provide, because they know what we need and know what’s allowed to be done. So, that’s what I’d do for sure.”


What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in your university experience so far, and what would you advise to new students starting in September 2021?

“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt so far is not to be judgemental. I went to university thinking that I wouldn’t be able to be friends with a certain type of person. I’ve learnt that hanging out with a real range of people, which really happens at university, is actually very important. And I had quite a fixed mindset before going to university. I was going with so many people from London that I felt comfortable with, reassured that I could always rely on them, and actually the amount of time I spend with them is really not that much. I freed myself from that fixed mindset, and I’ve managed to make a great group of friends who are all so different. It’s really nice to be able to now approach someone and not feel judged or feel like you're judging them.

Advice I’d give to someone starting in 2021 is: don’t feel bad or guilty about taking time for yourself. Don’t feel bad about missing out on a few little things for the sake of you feeling physically and mentally healthy. Especially in the first term, you feel like you need to do everything that is possible to do, so that you don’t miss out on that one night when everyone got a bit too drunk and all romantically became friends forever. That doesn’t happen that much, it’s actually a longer process. People actually really respect when you do take that time for yourself. Actually, if you’re in a better mood and are more up for things people gravitate towards you more. If you force yourself, people will notice that. It’s really good to just take time for yourself.

Basically, don’t feel pressure to be perfect in your first year. Operate in a sense that is just you. Don’t feel pressured to be anything other than what you are in that moment and be accepting of that.”


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