Colette Sheridan: Homebound students will miss out on their daily dose of craic

Will college camaraderie and craic be relegated to the archives of the past - with the student of today grimly focused on their studies, stuck in their bedrooms, bent over laptops? So asks Colette Sheridan
Colette Sheridan: Homebound students will miss out on their daily dose of craic

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE: Covid-19 restrictions could mean college scenes like this are a thing of the past. Picture: istock

“IS that where I’m going to lose my virginality?” asked a young boy of his mother one day as they were passing UCC.

This child, unwittingly, has a good sense of what college life is about.

And while today’s students spend a lot more time in the library than the slackers of my era, they are not totally operating on a cerebral level.

College life, ostensibly an opportunity to shine academically and become a well-heeled member of the establishment, is also very much about the people you meet, the liaisons you form and the social milieu that replaces that of school days.

You go to college to make the friends you’ll have for your adult life.

Which is why it is very worrying that thanks to Covid-19 (the great disruptor), the third level experience may be primarily conducted online, from one’s bedroom, on one’s own.

Is it for this that students toil, clocking up points but no longer able to physically enter the hallowed halls of UCC or where ever?

Remote teaching is set to become the norm until there is a widespread roll-out of a Covid-19 vaccine, which could take anything from 12 months to a lot longer.

According to the former chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Graham Love, the next two years will act as a “live lab experiment” for higher education and research in this country.

Who wants to be the subject of a lab experiment?

Science students, for example, are geared to carry out their own experiments in pursuit of knowledge. They won’t take kindly to being guinea pigs for a new way of learning at third level.

But according to Graham: “Significant course provision online, significant examination and assessment online or remotely — that is fundamentally going to challenge the business models of higher education institutions.”

That sounds like the death knell for lecture halls.

When you come to university straight from school classrooms, the lecture theatre is initially daunting. It’s big, it’s got rows and rows of tiered seating, and you’re there to take notes from some eminent academic.

But it soon becomes a friendly social hub where people find their quarry and pair off, not necessarily romantically.

College is all about intense friendships conducted on the campus, in bars and coffee shops. It’s also an opportunity to pursue non-academic interests, whether that’s drama, debating, playing sports or just throwing parties.

I remember being at a really memorable gathering in a house near UCC. The hostess invited a guy who was a strong man in a circus. I’ve no idea how she came across him but I do remember him ripping big chunky telephone directories in two in a few seconds.

We were all mesmerised as we quaffed cheap wine and ate spaghetti bolognese, that great student staple.

When I think of the time spent at parties and the booze consumed and the odd drag taken from cannabis joints being passed around, I almost feel exhausted. Sleep didn’t enter the picture. Fun, fun, fun was the raison d’etre.

Hearts were broken but soon mended when a new crush was successfully pursued.

If you were unlucky in love, you could settle for platonic friendships and discuss poetry. Seriously? Well, you could gossip and talk a little bit about poetry.

Let’s be honest here. We weren’t quite philistines but neither were we all wonderfully refined, engaged only in matters of the mind.

Heck, I used to go to the cowpunchers’ ball in City Hall which, I think, was organised by dairy science students at UCC. It was known for its high craic quotient.

Will all such carry-on be relegated to the archives of past students, with the student of today grimly focused on their studies, stuck in their bedrooms, bent over laptops? It would be an awful shame.

A lot of the learning comes from being with other people. Jean Paul Sartre may have declared that hell is other people, but as all of us slowly emerging from lockdown now know, bliss is a simple cup of coffee or a stroll with a friend.

Higher education is expensive, whatever way it is paid for. Will students be willing to pay — whether through fees or the tax system — for a course that will be for the most part studied remotely?

And what about international students whose fees are particularly high? Who would be a third level student in these strange times?

When I look back on college days, it isn’t the various schools of philosophy that I remember studying, but rather the mischievous characters that I was drawn to and the friendships formed.

Today’s typical student is more diligent — but he/she has the same needs as every student through the decades — plenty of craic.

Unfortunately, that may be under threat.

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