From self-isolation with flatmates they barely know and halls of residences emptying out over lockdown to struggles to get the wifi to work for Zoom lectures, the start to the 2020 term has been riddled with uncertainty for most university students. Just one thing’s for sure: it’s been a strange few weeks.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that students across campuses have been grappling with loneliness, anxiety and depression as a result of their experiences.
“Students aren’t just disappointed that their university experience looks different in terms of teaching and learning, they’re also asking: ‘What does it mean for all the other things I wanted out of uni? The people I could have met? The sports and societies I could have joined?’” said Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students.
Gyebi-Ababio set the scene for a discussion of how universities can support their students’ mental health at an online panel hosted by the Guardian and supported by Lenovo.
Fellow panellist Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said the most important steps are for institutions to be transparent with students about what they should expect from this year, and to foster an open, welcoming environment in which students feel comfortable coming forward about mental health problems.
He added that UWE collects data on students to monitor both their academic performance and their wellbeing. “We start to spot if they disengage, if they’re not handing in work, visiting library, accessing the virtual learning environment. When that happens we can trigger a simple question: ‘Are you OK? Do you need help?” he said, adding that “it’s not about pointing the finger, it’s not Big Brother”.
West also emphasised the importance of building online communities and making sure students’ basic technological needs are covered, through bursaries for laptops and dongles, so they don’t need to worry about how to study effectively.
Kate Lister, a lecturer in education studies and mental health lead at the Open University, agreed that fostering a sense of belonging is key to assuring good mental health among students studying remotely. “So many students feel vulnerable, disfranchised, like they’re not part of the university, and that can be exacerbated by the online environment,” she said. She recommended activities that bring students together and allow them to voice their opinions.
Rich Henderson, director of global education solutions at Lenovo, said that video games could be an innovative way to create a sense of community among students. “It creates a social connection, doing a quest together,” he said.
Lister noted that in a recent survey she ran of 500 distance-learning students, 62% said that assessment caused the biggest strain on their mental health.
At UWE, West agreed that this has been a revelation during the pandemic. As soon as assessments and exams were cancelled in March, anxiety levels dropped significantly and counselling services saw a drop in demand.
“We worked out that we actually don’t need to stuff everyone in an exam hall and assess them in a very traditional way,” he said. “I’ve screwed that up, thrown it out the window and said: ‘We’re never going back to that because it was garbage then, it just tests them on what they don’t know.’ Let’s be creative, let’s stop over-assessing staff and students.”
Michelle Morgan, a higher education consultant, pointed out that the challenges are not the same for different groups of students. She worried that commuter students, care leavers and estranged students are being sidelined in conversations that focus too strongly on the majority.
She especially worried about first-year students, since many stopped learning in March. This means that getting to grips with study skills again may place a particular strain on their mental health, she said.
She recommended that universities take an empathetic approach. “It’s about creating confidence among students who’ve had a really bad few months and understanding how they are feeling. We need to think about how can ease students back into study,” she said.
One major boost to students’ mental health came from the news from government about how they can return home for Christmas, said Gyebi-Ababio. “The fact it’s finally come out is a massive relief for students who’ve been wracking their brains about how to get home to loved ones.”
But she cautioned that it’s important for universities to be understanding in January. While some students will be happy to go back to campus, others will want to continue their studies from home, avoid face-to-face teaching or even leave their degrees.
Morgan added: “If students decide to withdraw, make it the best withdrawal experience you can, because it may be the one thing that brings them back to learning at some point in the future.”
On the panel
Rachel Hall (chair), universities editor, the Guardian
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president for higher education, National Union of Students
Rich Henderson, director of global education solutions, Lenovo
Kate Lister, lecturer in education studies at the Open University
Michelle Morgan, higher education consultant specialising in the student experience
Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor, University of the West of England