Let’s talk about… University life post-pandemic

University life won’t return to pre-Covid norms

The academic year has returned following our first (relatively) restriction-free summer since Covid hit, and with it has also come the routine sharing of a familiar sentiment: “Wow, that summer really flew, huh?”

This year however, that sentiment feels a lot more true. After two years of restrictions, we’re all aware of just how much the hours stretch when you’re stuck in the house with nothing to do. But now that we’ve been able to fill the days with holidays, nights out, and day trips, time has picked up the pace again, and it feels like the summer came and went in the flash of an eye.

This return to busy times is of course a good thing. It means we’re finally getting back to the sense of normality that we spent two years mourning; Covid, while by no means having disappeared, also no longer imposes the same infringement on our lives as it used to.

In the past few years, we often referred to post-pandemic life as a return to normality, an undesignated time in the unforeseeable future when we’d be able to get back to things as they were. We weren’t naive enough to presume the pandemic wouldn’t leave its mark, but we also knew that given enough time, we’d be able to make some sort of return to a pre-Covid brand of living.

In the past while, Galway has been a prime example of this return to pre-Covid activity. All summer, tourists flocked to the city, peaking with the return of the arts festival, Galway Races, and Pride celebrations. And it was invigorating to see that amount of activity on the streets again for the first time in years. Now, with the summer’s end, the tourists have begun to migrate home, but the buzz about the city persists as students arrive in droves to take up their place in the hustle and bustle.

For university students, the upcoming academic year is the one which most closely resembles pre-pandemic norms. Though last year, college returned with significantly more in-person components than the semesters previously, this year is when we are really seeing the return of a more traditional college experience. But how does the traditional college experience stack up in a post-Covid landscape?

On the surface, with restrictions now fading out of prominence in our lives, returning to how things were seems like the natural move. Several things had to be sacrificed to protect public health, but surely now, such activities can be reintroduced. Lectures no longer have to be held online, students aren’t forced to live at home with their parents, and university nightlife can return in full swing again… or at least you might presume so. However, the reality understood by students facing into this academic year (in Galway at least) is that these aspects of university life won’t and can’t return to their pre-pandemic norms.

One particular point of contention for students is universities’ disinclination to continue providing recorded lectures and other online learning materials. The benefits that such materials provided for people struggling mentally/physically, or even just as a study aid, cannot go understated, and although students have been very vocal about wishing to retain online resources, it seems universities are keen to reinstate a more traditional teaching model. But this traditional model is not in sync with the post-Covid ethos of encouraging blended learning/working, nor does it take into account how the pandemic has exacerbated the housing crisis, making in-person lectures harder to attend.

Finding reasonably priced accommodation in Galway within commutable distance of college feels like a fool’s errand at the moment. You could almost chronicle the worsening state of the housing market through students’ social media stories – not just in the number of people asking peers for recommendations, but also in the dwindling accommodation requirements students are setting in the hopes of getting somewhere, anywhere, to live. Now, as the academic year closes in, a lot of students have resigned to commuting, paying exorbitant prices, or ‘kipping’ on friends’ couches until something turns up.

Even for students who do manage to find a place, the social aspect of university life will not be the same. The strain Covid put on businesses led to the closure of a lot of places that are popular on the student nightlife scene. Galway lost two of its three nightclubs in the past few years, and even the last remaining one was subject to rumours of possible closure earlier this year.

However, despite the issues facing students post-Covid, and the lack of action taken to address such issues by Government and universities (I’m unsure whether NUIG’s rebrand to UG was the best use of €500k…), no one would argue that a return to university life, in whatever form it takes, isn’t welcomed.

So best of luck to anyone facing into the next academic year – even if the return to university post-pandemic is far from perfect, it could always be worse (you could have to deal with Zoom breakout rooms again).