Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Last month, thousands of university students made their way back to campus with high hopes of getting their education back on track. Yet, with some areas in the UK facing local lockdown measures, it has brought yet another level of disruption to students. The term ‘university life’, has taken on a completely new meaning in the world of education.
With minimal face-to-face contact being applied to university courses, students are missing out on a large part of daily interaction from their lecturers and classmates which make up a great part of the university experience. As well as some students being completely confined to their student accommodation.
These factors, combined with an increase in Covid-19 cases both within and surrounding UK campuses, will most likely result in yet another rapid decline in poor wellbeing among university students.
How student wellbeing has been affected
The reopening of universities has resulted in Covid-19 cases within more than 100 UK higher education institutions, according to @UniCovidUK. Already, Manchester Metropolitan, Glasgow and Northumbria University have been reported putting entire halls on lockdown, leading to thousands of students self-isolating away from home around the UK, reveals The Guardian.
Alongside students’ core academic activities being impacted by Covid-19, students will have also experienced disruption to study patterns and missed out on potential academic learning and student experiences that would have otherwise been included in their course. This includes planned placement years, studying abroad, field trips and postgraduate research which will have been either postponed or cancelled.
In addition to having academic life turned on its head, both returning and new university students will have missed out on an abundance of social activities that university typically has to offer. Freshers week activities such as Freshers Fair, pub quizzes, club nights and society socials will have been put on hold or converted to an online-only basis. This will also contribute to the loneliness felt among the university student community, and in turn, greatly negatively impact their mental wellbeing.
According to a cross-sectional survey by Mind, the UK's leading mental health charity, 73% of students said that their mental health declined during lockdown. Their survey report, published in June, also showed that those aged 18-24 reported worse mental health and wellbeing during lockdown compared to any other age group.
Overall, 51% said that their mental health was poor, and three quarters said that their mental health got worse during the pandemic. Another 49% said that difficulties accessing mental health support made their mental health worse, including just under half of university students. What these statistics show is clear: young people were more likely to see their mental health worsen during the lockdown period.
With Covid-19 cases around the UK continue to increase and progressively more students being told to isolate within their accommodation, we will likely see these types of negative mental health patterns arise once again. This means that student wellbeing should be considered even more high priority by universities.
University student’s personal experiences
22-year-old Maariya Hussain, a final year student at Birmingham City University says: “I've been under a lot of stress due to trying to catch up with work as the timetable has been all over the place due to Covid-19, so trying to manage the workload before sessions has caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. Most teaching is online, but I am worried I won't do as well as I am studying a practical subject.
The advice I would give to universities would be to encourage students to contact each other virtually. Have online events such as quizzes, virtual lunches, virtual society meetings etc, just so students can have a space where they can interact with each other. As well as offering sessions on managing health and wellbeing.
And for on-campus, have events that discuss mental health and wellbeing. Hold events where students can participate and not have to think about their studies. Have a safe place where students can talk to and relate to each other about their feelings, so they know they are not alone.”
Kimberly Elliot, a graduate of Middlesex University, adds: “Potential issues for student wellbeing at the moment include concerns about integrating university life and studying, compounded with disrupted learning environments and an uncertain future in the job market.
One piece of advice I’d give to universities when it comes to improving student wellbeing is to provide reassurance and targeted support for students in the form of well-defined processes and plans for those who may be reluctant to attend in-person teaching.
Also, consider alternative assessment methods that reflect the experiences of students affected by mental health and anxiety. For example, shorter weighted coursework assignments and online examinations in place of campus-based examinations.
When it comes to online interaction, increase your promotion of student forums and monitoring of discussions around student wellbeing. Incorporate online activities and panels that give feedback to universities on how students are coping. Encourage anonymous responses to wellbeing as students may be fearful of sharing the issues that affect them in a public forum.”
Support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds
The impact of Covid-19 means that certain student groups will be more vulnerable to mental health and wellbeing problems than others, both during the pandemic and after, according to university guidance compiled by the Office for Students. This means that these students especially should be provided with extra support from their universities.
These groups include black and ethnic minority students, care experienced students and students estranged from families, young carers, disabled students, international students and students experiencing domestic violence and abuse.
Black and ethnic minority students are at increased risk of contracting coronavirus and its impact, according to a report published by Public Health England. This includes Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Black Caribbean and other black and Asian ethnicities. There have also been several reports of race-based hate incidents linked to the coronavirus and heightened cases of xenophobia around the UK.
Care experienced students and those estranged from their families are more likely to have less support from their peers and will face greater financial difficulties. There are more likely to be based in student accommodation, facing high uncertainty over accommodation over the upcoming months.
Longstanding carer students may have had to take on additional caring responsibilities for family or friends, such as for those who are self-isolating due to pre-existing health conditions or possible exposure to coronavirus. Those with children are also less likely to have time to study as a result of school and nursery closures and reduced childcare support from family and friends.
Some disabled students may need to self-isolate and may face increased struggles with their everyday medical needs. Those with pre-existing mental health conditions may experience exacerbated symptoms. Whilst others who have not previously stated a disability at university now may be experiencing barriers due to the impact of coronavirus.
International students may have intended to return to their home countries, but have been prevented by borders being closed or a lack of flights. As a result of this, they may experience heightened isolation, financial difficulties and worry about the safety and health of their family and friends. Some may also be more likely to experience race-based hate incidents.
Students who are experiencing domestic abuse and violence will struggle with studying at home in isolation. For example, they may struggle to find a safe study space, access support or escape abuse. According to data published by the domestic violence support charity Refuge, they have seen an increase in 25% of calls and contacts to their helplines since the UK entered lockdown measures.
How we can help
Here at TG Consulting, we recognise how important it is for both universities and employers to have the tools to be able to fully support their student’s well-being. We understand what students want and what they need from higher education institutions and employers in order to succeed.
We understand all aspects of the higher education environment, including employability, progression, student engagement and experience. We can help you develop and provide a robust and well-rounded student experience that will help you to engage and attract prospective students and positively impact your current students in the current unprecedented climate.
We also provide useful insights into the higher education space including the student journey and recent trends. Whether you are looking for recruitment campaign consultation, talent attraction strategies, higher education insights and student voice campaigns, we are here to help.
By Katie Watson, TG Consulting Intern