Return to uni: are students still being overlooked?

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For almost a year, university students have been stuck in limbo. For many, being left out of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown in April seemed like the final straw.

The National Union of Students and the mental health charity Student Minds promptly called on the government to “make and communicate its decision,” and give students “certainty.” 

However, this blatant disregard for students’ courses, accommodation and mental health has already proven catastrophic. 

Speaking to several students from different universities across the country, they have discussed some of the financial struggles they’ve endured thanks to the lack of guidance from the government. One student described how having to pay for accommodation they haven’t used was like “having to pour money down the drain.” 

This was a direct consequence of no one, including her university, being certain about whether a return to on-campus learning was safe. She went on to say how all this uncertainty could have been avoided if universities were given “clear instructions by the government.”

Not only that but worrying figures have emerged surrounding how student mental health has worsened thanks to the pandemic.  A recent survey by NUS revealed that over half of the U.K students say their mental health has deteriorated or been affected negatively by Covid-19. This should send a clear message to the government… students need support. 

No more burying their heads in the sand when it comes to university students or their mental wellbeing. Students deserve clarity and transparency about their course, their accommodation, and their future.

So upon announcing that on-campus teaching at Universities was to resume on May 17th, reactions were varied. 

“The government’s blatant disregard for students’ courses, accommodation and mental health has already proven catastrophic.”

Sanjana Idnani, an English literature student at the University of Bristol, described how returning to campus would be some sort of relief from the mental challenges of online learning, detailing that, “the mental health consequences of another term of remote learning will be far more severe.”

The ubiquitous consensus amongst university students is that they miss face-to-face learning. 

One student discussed how the social benefits of face-to-face learning greatly helped her motivation, saying, “It provides structure to my days and weeks, and is so much more engaging. I hardly had any interaction with other students in the past year, and I would love to work with other people on projects and discuss the material with them like I used to before university was online.”

Another student shared how they were deprived of a proper student experience, saying, “I just see a screen full of no videos so even the smallest social aspects of uni are lost.”

I asked the students whether they would feel safe returning the following year and if there were any measures that could ease the daunting transition. One told me, “[they] would feel comfortable as long as the measures are adequate and thoughtful. It would be nice to finally receive what was expected since the start, and finally have the opportunity to socialise, for example.”

Fortunately, the official higher education coronavirus (Covid-19) operational guidance file has general measures which are in accordance with the current social distancing standards. “The public health guidance is to reduce social contact, maintain social distance, adopt good hand and respiratory hygiene measures, and self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms.”

“The government has been working with HE providers to offer twice-weekly asymptomatic testing to all students residing in their term-time accommodation, or accessing university facilities, and to all staff, and this will continue throughout the remainder of the summer term.”

Yet for a lot of students, there still remains a lot of unanswered questions and worries about returning to University. 

For international students, problems could arise if the government suddenly decide to revert back to online learning. I was told, “As an international student, moving between campus and home is a lot of hassle, and I wouldn’t want to move to the UK in September just to be told after a couple of weeks that we are going back to online learning.”

Additionally, upon reaching this date, many students will have already finished their exams anyway; returning to campus would be essentially pointless. The University and College Union (UCU), which represents university staff, criticised the logistics behind the 17th May return, writing, “The decision to return to in-person teaching on university campuses when classes for the vast majority of students have already finished is a distraction, placing more workload on to burnt-out staff,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady. 

As such, we can definitely raise some doubt as to whether the government have adequately considered the logistics behind this choice. 

“Yet for a lot of students, there still remains a lot of unanswered questions and worries about returning to University.”

In a sense, students are still being overlooked somewhat by larger systems at work. A lot of decisions about the future seem to have been made behind closed doors without general re-opening guidelines in place that could be distributed across all universities. 

Going back to face-to-face education is quite the transition from the ‘new normal’ we’ve had to adjust to since the beginning of the pandemic. So, with such an abrupt change, what measures will there be to protect student wellbeing?

At my University, we never once got regular emails checking in on our wellbeing during the past three lockdowns. Thus, it’s possible that returning to campus this September might not be that much different from the current normality.

As of yet, the official government website has released the following statement, “[Universities] continue to have responsibilities towards students including the provision of pastoral support, and taking steps to protect the physical and mental health, safety and wellbeing of students. The department has asked providers to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of their students and this includes determining what welfare and support services students need.” 

You’d think, after such revelatory aforementioned statistics, the government would want to take agency in supporting student wellbeing. 

However, the government continues to imply full responsibility is on universities, without displaying any willingness to instigate impactful change themselves. For nearly a year, students have campaigned for tuition and accommodation fees to be refunded because of the pandemic disruption. 

Despite there being a record numbers of complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the government demonstrate an uncooperative attitude. They merely responding with the following statement, “Government plays no direct role in the provision of student residential accommodation, whether it is managed by universities or private companies.”

A return date alone isn’t enough to compensate for being deprived of a fulfilled University experience, denied any tuition or accommodation rebates, and for the damage to our mental health.

 Image: Domstu via Wikimedia Commons

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