Putting on the “big coat”, a discussion about whether to turn the heating on, the endless search for decent soup recipes, and the sky turning black at 4pm: autumn is officially here.
It’s not a coincidence that both Halloween and Bonfire Night fall so close to each other: there is something crackling in the air at this time of year, the need to find comfort in old ceremonies, a fundamental need to ward the darkness off. My personal autumn equinox is the same every year: seeing a conker gleaming on the ground, picking it up, picking up about 50 to 100 more on my way home, being asked very aggressively when I get in why I have such oddly bulging pockets, being forced to admit that I’m 33 and am therefore not going to actually put said conkers in the oven and then drill a hole in them, sadly trudging my new conkers back outside, then depositing them on the ground near a tree and secretly taking one to keep in my inside pocket, a special little treat for baby.
Maybe your autumn ritual is just “having a pumpkin spice latte while wearing a scarf”, I don’t know. Either way, there’s one autumnal ritual that often goes overlooked: somewhere, always, a member of a university Christian society is chain-making toast for drunken first years.
You will know this if you have attended freshers’ week at a British university, because British university freshers’ weeks are all more or less the same: the fire alarms go off at 2am, someone cooks a tin of beans so catastrophically badly that the charred pan has to soak in the communal sink for the next month, there’s the electric gossip of who on each floor managed to have sex with someone first, a traffic cone, a tower of Foster’s cans, a mature student from a European country yelling that you’re all “utter bullshit”. Everyone you talk to for an entire 48-hour period is somehow studying psychology. You find yourself blinking in fluorescent lights in the laundrette late at night, wondering how many scoops of powder a duvet can realistically take. Watching a sobbing student pleading with their dad to drive overnight to pick them up. Living under the looming, constant threat of Rag week. One fresher always spends their entire student loan on some DJ decks.
This was how it used to go, anyway, before this year, when the concept of freshers’ flu got taken to the extreme. As local Covid rates doubled, students on Manchester Met’s Birley campus and Cambridge Halls were told to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they exhibited no symptoms. Students in Scotland were advised to avoid all pubs over the weekend to help control possible outbreaks on campuses.
It goes on: students at various universities have been informed at incredibly short notice, ie after they’d spent a frantic hell-day doing a big Ikea shop with their mum, that their courses would be going online-only for the next two weeks at least, but possibly for the foreseeable future.
Several institutions have reported Covid outbreaks, and, with the new separate household rules, many students are forbidden from going back home to see their parents, or are scared to leave the campus in case it somehow affects their course place.
As Christmas jingles on to the horizon, there’s a remote but real chance students will be prevented from going home for the holidays to try to contain the spread (“If you have had the last nine months that I’ve had, you’d understand why we don’t rule out anything,” Matt Hancock told BBC Breakfast, because he’s seemingly unable to talk in public past 12pm, like a sort of Covid Gremlin). Students are paying thousands of pounds to live in a special sort of prison where they get to go online and watch lecturers click through PowerPoint presentations. It’s not ideal.
I know this is all relatively insignificant in the context of a pandemic that has now clocked one million deaths worldwide, but it feels important to document these unfairnesses, big and small, as they affect us all. This has, globally, been an unfair year. The higher education system is undoubtedly imperfect, and needs – let’s be honest – a root-and-branch reform, and there needs to be better options to offer school leavers, half of whom don’t go to university, a viable path into their careers.
But in this head-spinningly strange time, it feels deeply wrong to lock those who do go to university in halls, ostensibly just to guarantee university rental income, then telling them the precious world-beating education they signed up for is actually just a video of a PhD candidate in their bedroom. These students should be sharing jugs of obscene cocktails, having a panic attack when a blueberry-flavoured SU-branded condom fails during their third ever act of intercourse, and getting weirdly good at pool. Instead they are in a special sort of learning compound and Matt Hancock might still destroy Christmas. A rite of passage has been stolen from a generation. Mourn the loss of autumn.
• Joel Golby is a writer for the Guardian and Vice, and the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant