Sophie Porteous speaks to students and staff about the seemingly unfair treatment of music and theatre societies in light of Covid- 19.
University without societies. Before this year that would have seemed like a grim idea. Societies are central to the university experience and are one of the core ways for students to make friends in what is often said to be ‘the best years of our lives’. Yet with the university placing strict restrictions on the students before lockdown, it begs the question: why weren’t societies allowed to run?
For the seven weeks of term before lockdown began (eight including freshers’ week), there was no face to face society activity allowed apart from sports. Other universities such as Southampton let music rehearsals take place in small groups before lockdown, but the University here in Exeter refused to allow this. A representative of the Student’s Guild explained that they had “worked hard” to allow for societies to function as close to normal as possible, however although they “believed the education exemption put in place in September did apply to our societies, the University unfortunately interpreted the exemption differently”.
This therefore meant that no societies other than sports could have any form of face to face activity. While exercise has been allowed throughout the lockdowns, it seems odd that sport would be allowed to meet face to face when other societies could not meet at all. The emphasis on the benefits of exercise on mental health, as well as the government’s push against obesity perhaps explain why sports were given such leeway, but what about those whose mental health benefits more from other activities, such as painting or playing an instrument? Moreover, what about those who have a disability that prevents them from participating in sports? Confined to virtual social activities when zoom seems to be becoming increasingly draining renders many societies completely unable to function as usual and makes it extremely difficult to make friends.
Confined to virtual social activities, many societies are completely unable to function as usual, and makes it extremely difficult to make friends
Nationally, those who work in the arts are feeling let down by the government. As a University that does not offer a music degree, societies are the only way for those who love music or performing to enjoy this. Exeter has a wide variety of music and theatre societies of very high quality, with a cappella groups winning national awards, and many societies performing in the Northcott Theatre. The fact that the University will not let them meet face to face, and therefore will not let them function as they need could have dire consequences. If people cannot rehearse then membership may fall, meaning that come March there will not be many people running for committee roles. A representative of the Guild said however that they do “believe all our student leaders are fully capable in delivering safe activity for the student body, and will continue to push for approval to restart activity as soon as national and regional restrictions allow”, giving societies some hope for the rest of this academic year.
“We believe all our student leaders are fully capable in delivering safe activity for the student body“Guild Representative
However, music and theatre societies are still struggling to run despite the Guild’s hard work. A representative of Footlights, a musical theatre society, stated that they have been told that performing arts societies are the Guild’s “lowest priority” (something which is also mentioned in their open letter to the Student’s Guild). The Guild said that they would “like to reassure students and committee members in music and theatre societies that this is absolutely not the case”. Yet the committee feel differently given that despite “planning extensively for every best- and worst-case scenario, including researching financials and cancellation policies whilst keeping the Guild in the loop at all times” and sending their final budget and contracts to the Guild in August they had not heard anything from the Guild when spoken to.
In November they posted an open letter to the Guild on their Facebook page and have since had the rights finally signed for their show, but this does not undo the stress that has been caused to them. They write in their open letter that “in a year in which stress and anxiety are much more difficult to manage, the Guild have acted as an antagonist rather than a voice of support”. Understandably, the Guild have been extremely busy and are working hard in what is a completely unprecedented year, but the fact that it seems to be a Facebook post that managed to get the Guild to take action is problematic.
When asked about plans to reintroduce society activity, the Guild stated that they are planning a “phased return”. A President of a music society said that the impression they got from Guild staff in meetings they have had with them is that their planned order of reintroducing activities is sports first, then recreational, religious, subject-related, political and debating societies and finally musical performance. The Guild did not mention this when asked about the return of societies, and wanted to stress that although “there are obviously challenges to specific kinds of activity” they are “working to ensure that all activity is able to get up and running as soon as it is safe to do so”. Understandably, the Guild need to create a plan of action and this may be what this “order of reintroduction” has been misunderstood to be, however the fact that students have been given the impression that their society is of less importance than another is very demoralising.
The impression I have got from speaking to students is that the University, and by proxy the Guild, are making many feel as if they do not care about them. Sports are allowed more liberties, while others must stand to the side-lines and watch as their societies are denied the ability to fulfill their very basic functions. Although the Guild are working hard to allow societies to return, more needs to be done to make the process fairer in the eyes of the students.