Living in student accommodation usually centres around two things: partying and arguing with flatmates over whose turn it is to take out the bin. But with the introduction of stricter UK lockdown rules in December and a lack of in-person teaching, those two traits have been taken to their most chaotic extremes.
“Everyone's completely fucked up their body clock,” says Naomi*, a first-year student at Nottingham Trent University. “Online learning means that some people will party and take drugs in the kitchen until 4AM, but others will study until 7AM and then go to sleep.”
The absence of traditional lectures has meant many first-year flats have become 24/7 party houses, as some students ditch recorded class for day drinking to tackle lockdown fatigue. Without the need to drag yourself onto campus for a 9AM lecture, the line between night and day has totally vanished. As sleep routines fall wildly out of sync, students are struggling to live in harmony.
“I think it was when we were given 48 hours to do post-Christmas exams that routines started to become really fucked up,” says Alex*, an 18-year-old first-year student at the University of Manchester. After the daily routine of going on campus for lectures and seminars was abandoned, Alex began to clash with fellow flatmates who were working on offbeat schedules. “We argued loads because one person's middle of the day was another person's middle of the night after staying up late to meet a deadline.”
In some cases, students have fallen into drug use to help maintain their new routine under lockdown. “So many people ended up doing coke in the middle of the night to finish an exam, and then getting stoned to sleep,” explains Alex. “It causes more flat tensions as people are on comedowns all the time. It's such a shame because I don't want to lose any friends, but lockdown is making this tough.”
Sally Baker, a relationships expert and senior therapist, tells VICE that being confined to a living space can bring out the worst in everyone. “Think of it as a rite of passage that you have to get through. Solid friendships will bounce back after lockdown, when everyone will have more choices with who they can spend time with.”
Baker also suggests arranging difficult discussions with flatmates outdoors in a non-blaming way. “A mixture of the mediative process of walking and not having to make eye contact makes giving and receiving conversations on challenging topics less threatening.”
The biggest flatmate disputes have been about lockdown rules. While some students are very COVID-conscious, particularly since the post-Christmas increase in cases, others are more comfortable with breaking lockdown rules while living away from vulnerable parents and grandparents.
“First year is shit enough with every club shut and having to pay for online uni – I really didn’t need a flatmate who watches my every move,” says Charlie*, a first-year at Trinity College Dublin who disagrees with his flatmates about restrictions. ‘I’ve moved away from home where my mum is vulnerable, so I don’t really see the issue with going to the flat next door for a few drinks now that I’m in student flats.”
Evie* a first-year student at Manchester, has also disagreed with flatmates over COVID rules. After becoming the first student in her flat to contract coronavirus, Evie’s flatmates were told they would all have to isolate with her. Aggressive WhatsApp messages then became the norm, as the flatmates requested that Evie not leave her room for the entire 14 days, and only enter the kitchen in full PPE.
“It was awful,” she says. “Everyone is making friends in first year and I was stuck in an environment of passive-aggressive texts and not speaking to anyone, even my own flatmates, for weeks.”
Paper-thin walls, loud (usually faked) orgasms and making the fatal error of shagging your flatmates are usually as far as sex-related issues go in student accommodation. However, as flatmates disagree on lockdown restrictions, loud sex is not just the cause for a lost night's sleep. It’s also given rise to intense conflict over pandemic restrictions, with students arguing about bringing potential positive cases into shared accommodation.
When he moved into student accommodation in Nottingham, Oscar* struggled to agree with his flatmates about who was allowed in their flat. “I ended up coming back to my flat with this girl at around 4AM. Just after we had finished having sex, there was this loud knock at the door from security because my flatmates had complained – it was so fucking awkward.”
Jack*, a second-year student in London, has not seen his girlfriend for months. “We all agreed, as a flat, that we wouldn't see our girlfriends during lockdown', he tells me. “But I once woke up in the middle of the night and saw my flatmate try and sneak his girlfriend out after they'd had sex.”
Baker tells me that negotiating the issue of sex when you live in a shared flat can be difficult enough, especially considering COVID restrictions. “If everyone sharing a space was having their equal share of great, wild, enjoyable sex, then no-one would care who was having people stay over – but this is rarely the case.” She suggests blanket rules for the entire house, which everyone must stick to such as only silent sex or no sex in shared spaces – particularly with the present virus risks.
The messy nights out where you lose all your belongings – or worse, shag a “DJ” with 200 followers on Soundcloud – may no longer be an option in the current era of coronavirus lockdowns. But whether it’s a guy on coke trying to finish a Geography exam at 5AM or passive-aggressive texts constantly flicking up on the flat groupchat, a semblance of the classic university experience remains; only this time it’s on steroids, and no one can leave the house – not even for a lecture.