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The changes and challenges faced by University students during the COVID-19 pandemic – Dulcie Faure-Walker

There are 137 universities in the UK and approximately 2 million students studying at higher education institutions. Each institution will have had to adapt quickly to the Coronavirus outbreak. Over the last few months students have continued to engage with studies while facing and adapting to challenges unseen in our lifetimes and during a time when many of us are feeling unsettled and isolated.

Since the lockdown, students can no longer access university buildings and facilities. Places which students relied on, such as libraries and other resources they could use outside of teaching time, are closed and awaiting government guidance. Students have had to adapt to using their home environment as their classroom. Additionally, remote teaching approaches assume that staff and students have access to a computer and reliable Wi-Fi, which is not always the case. There is also the potential impact on physical and mental health as prolonged time working from home can affect wellbeing, where the home and work life boundaries can become blurred. Recommendations for this new way of working have included maintaining a routine, working from a designated workspace where possible and connecting with staff and other students via forums to maintain a sense of community.

Universities will continue with online teaching and assessment for the remainder of the academic year, with arrangements in place for students to continue their studies remotely. This will be part of a so-called “blended approach” to teaching and learning, with many universities announcing that lectures will be given online. For most, exams for undergraduate and postgraduate taught students this summer will take place online. Doctoral viva voce exams have been postponed or carried out via video calling platforms where possible. And the students who were due to graduate this summer will have to wait to officially celebrate their achievements as graduation ceremonies have been postponed.

The government rejected a plea from universities in England for a £2bn bailout, instead encouraging other sources of financial help in order for them to survive. This includes tuition fee income and research funding being brought forward, and access to the Treasury’s support for businesses disrupted by Coronavirus. The impact of COVID19 on universities is likely to be serious, alongside already existing concerns as a result of Brexit. This includes fears that European students will be deterred by fees to study in the UK, which are likely to cost them over £20,000. The government says university students in England will still have to pay full tuition fees even if their courses are taught online in the autumn. A petition seeking refunds for lost teaching, after face-to-face teaching ended in March, has gained more than 330,000 signatures, enough for a parliamentary debate.

Universities have said they are planning the reopening of facilities when it is safe to do so. They have said that reopening may take place in a phased approach, as government guidance allows. Certain student groups may be given priority, such as postgraduate researchers in their final year and postdoctoral researchers on time-limited funding. The universities that have begun opening have made face coverings compulsory inside buildings on campus, including lecture theatres, teaching rooms, laboratories and corridors.

When the new university year begins, most universities have said they will try to ensure elements of practical teaching that cannot be delivered online will go ahead on campus. They will try to offer some on-campus opportunities to meet lecturers and other students, recognising that starting a new university, possibly in a new area and not knowing anyone, provokes anxiety. Universities are trying to provide support where possible, but this is challenging, especially as restrictions could change come September 2020. There is much work still to be done and questions to be answered.

Despite the challenges already faced and those that lie ahead, social distancing interventions are less disruptive than full university closures. Students are able to access education, albeit in a different way. The pandemic has forced us to work, research and educate in new ways and there have been positives to this. We have had to be embrace technology and innovative, and universities have had to develop agile and more inclusive ways of teaching and assessing. The blended approach may provide students more flexibility, reduce costs and improve their access to learning as more resources can be found online. If successful, such adaptions may continue in a post-Covid world.

Dulcie Faure-Walker
Forensic Psychologist, Priory Group
NOTA Student Representative