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A step into the unknown: Nine ways college life will change in the Covid era

No house parties, making new friends, flexible accommodation– there are so many challenges facing third-level students in the weeks and months ahead

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The days of crowded lecture halls and ‘Messy Mondays’ in the student bar are over for now. As students process the first round of CAO offers, here’s nine ways college life will change in the Covid era.

1. More flexible and available accommodation

Some universities are offering students flexible on-campus accommodation for the coming year.

As students will be spending far less time physically in college, they will be able to rent rooms on a nightly, weekly or monthly basis.

“It’s a big undertaking, but the fact is you can’t expect or ask people to pay for a semester’s worth of accommodation when they may be on campus very little. We’re trying to make it as straightforward as possible given the extraordinary circumstances,” said DCU’s communications officer Thomas Kelly.

The scramble for off-campus accommodation has always been a major challenge due to Ireland’s housing crisis. But with fewer tourists coming to Ireland and people moving back to rural areas, cities have seen more short-term accommodation become available.

Rental website Daft.ie reported there was almost 50pc more available rentals in Dublin between the start of May and the end of July, compared with the same time last year.

However, rents remain high. Students are being asked to pay up to four months’ rent in advance to secure accommodation in some cases, according to a new survey carried out by housing charity Threshold this week.

2. No more house parties

Pre-drinks and house parties have always been a staple part of the college social scene. But thanks to Covid, not any more.

“On-campus accommodation is just going to be somewhere you sleep and stay now, you won’t be able to have loads of people over,” according to DCU’s Thomas Kelly.

University College Dublin (UCD) will be prohibiting students from having guests sleep over. Student house parties will also be banned on campus.

Some colleges, like National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) are asking students to sign up to a pledge to be responsible in their behaviour. Meanwhile, residents near University College Cork (UCC) have been campaigning for landlords and letting agents to include a stipulation in contracts that house parties are not allowed due to public health concerns.

3. More students may decide to defer in the hope that a vaccine is found

Speculation has been rife that more students may want to delay starting college in the hope that the pandemic will subside next year. Some may want to avoid physically attending for health reasons, while others don’t want to start university at a time where they will not get the true college experience.

“I’m only 17 and I just feel like I don’t want to start college at a time when you won’t be on campus much, you can’t go out and it will be harder to make friends,” said Wexford student Roisin Murphy.

Aoife Walsh, guidance counsellor at Malahide Community School, said based on the experience of CAO Round A and Round Zero, which precede Round 1, “the level of requests is on a par, or a little less in some cases” with previous years.

“Covid concerns have been mentioned as a factor in some of the deferral applications arising from those two rounds of offers,” she said.

On the flip side, students who were considering taking a year out to travel or work before the pandemic hit may now decide otherwise.

4. Harder to make friends

Students leaving behind secondary school have to start all over again when it comes to making friends in college. But how do you do that when everything is online and you have to keep your distance from people at events?

Ian Power, who runs the youth welfare website Spunout.ie, said it’s “going to be a challenge”.

“Potentially you may have friends moving from the same school but inevitably your friend-network will expand and often those friends can be made in the first few weeks of college. That will be difficult and different this year. I know lots of societies are gearing up for socially distant and online events but it won’t be the same level of interaction.

“You won’t be going to nightclubs, you won’t be going to house parties. Getting out there and meeting new people will be a challenge.”

5. The future is online

The Irish University Association said colleges will adopt a “hybrid approach”. This means that lectures will primarily be delivered online and students will attend campus for face-to-face laboratory classes, practical sessions and small group interactions, where possible.

Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) was the first university to confirm it would be holding all classes and tutorials online. Some activities such as labs and workshops will be held on campus with social distancing measures in place, but the majority of the academic year will be online.

The University of Limerick (UL) said students will only be on campus for one week in every month. Experts believe this will lead to the acceleration of innovation in education technology, with colleges looking to introduce more virtual experiences that feel like a real classroom.

6. Less shifting, more sexting

Since Covid hit, the Health Service Executive (HSE) urged people to limit their sexual activity to prevent further spread of the virus. It issued a leaflet earlier this month advising people to masturbate and to watch pornography to protect themselves.

With nightclubs set to remain shut, wet pubs subject to strict regulations and sleep overs banned from on-campus accommodation, the simple days of going out and getting the shift will be no more.

7. A drop in international students

Between 20pc and 30pc of the student population in Ireland is made up of international students.

Due to travel restrictions and colleges moving largely online, it is expected there will be a fall in the number of foreign students travelling to Ireland this year - which will result in a huge drop in revenue for universities here.

UCD welcomes around 6,000 students from overseas each year. A spokesperson for the college said there has been a decrease in the numbers applying, but is hopeful things will turn around next year.

Meanwhile, the numbers of students coming to English language schools in Ireland could drop by 120,000 this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to school association Marketing English in Ireland.

8. More students may decide to commute

Considering most of the coming college year will be online, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that students will opt to commute to college. Ian Power of Spunout.ie says it makes perfect sense with so much uncertainty still out there.

“We’re still waiting for a lot of colleges to give us updates on what things are going to look like for students when they return,” he said.

“I’ve heard of lots of young people who are being pressured to put down deposits on accommodation, and normally when the CAO results come out there is a scramble for accommodation, whereas this year I don’t know if that’s going to be the case.”

9. Government considering reducing college fees

Students have been calling for reduced registration fees given that many will now be learning from home for most of the year. Higher Education Minister Simon Harris admitted that the current standard fee of €3,000 is too high and said he is committed to potentially lowering this in the Government’s lifetime.

“The objective is ensuring access to and continued participation in higher education by students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from families who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid,” a spokesperson for the Department of Education said.

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