Dropouts, disenfranchisement and dejection: why students are struggling

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has been raging on, an all too close-to-home epidemic has begun to take grip of the population: a mental health crisis. Isolation, insecurity and health anxiety is a potent concoction, and it has, unsurprisingly, hit people hard. This is true for the whole population, with lockdown having “major impacts” on mental health, and this includes students at university.

In a pandemic-free world, university is typically a trying time of transition and transformation, both for the students within themselves and for their understanding of the world around them. This makes them a vulnerable sub-set of the population to mental illness. The pandemic has made this no easier: repeated periods of self-isolation, job insecurity, being unable to meet with friends outside of accommodation, and online lectures are just some of the long list of disruptions caused.

Yet when Johnson announced there was to be another lockdown on the 4th January, students were left completely in the dark, with no mention of universities at all. It became clear in the days since, that campuses will largely be closed, and students are being urged not to return to their university towns unless it is absolutely necessary for them to do so.

The situation as it stands is that students are now staying in childhood bedrooms, engaging with university completely remotely. Many are paying rent for accommodation that has been left vacant, and are paying tuition fees for facilities and real-life lectures they are unable to access, yet they are unable to work to supplement their student loans. Mental health is spiralling. And still there has been no safety net put in place to safeguard grades in any way.

In the main, universities have not introduced long-term safeguards for students. The Russell Group, representing the UK’s 24 leading research universities, state that a ‘no detriment’ policy is not necessary. Such policies were introduced after the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, protecting students from disruption by ensuring their year’s grade would not dip below their previous average.

Writing as a University of Leeds student, it seems nonsensical that the institution does not believe this year’s circumstances warrant similar measures. I have not attended lecture in real life since last February. The University Union strikes last year caused widespread disruption to our timetables, followed by a lockdown which has subsequently seen all teaching move online. As such, my university education has thus far been an ‘Open University’ course, but one we are paying £3,058 more per year to attend. Student satisfaction rates reflect this, with only half reporting that they were satisfied with their academic experience.

When assessed in an age of consumerism,  students’ consumer rights have been woefully ill-protected. Those booking package holidays to Europe do so in the knowledge that, if they are unable to fly, they will receive a refund; by the same standards, why are students not receiving any kind of compensation despite receiving an inadequate learning experience? Students are now petitioning for universities to become more transparent about the way that their fees are being spent.

Full-time students have largely been excluded from studies examining the effects of the pandemic on job losses, playing into the narrative that they are another set of forgotten victims of the pandemic. It is likely, however, that since the majority of students who work part-time do so in the service industry, they will have been similarly affected as their fully employed peers, a third of whom have lost work due to furloughing or job losses.

Coronavirus has depleted students’ mental wellbeing, as well as their funds. Mental health and wellbeing has consistently been reported to be worse compared to before the pandemic, with a particularly noticeable drop in levels of happiness (see graphic below). Similarly, loneliness ratings have soared, with 11 percent more students feeling lonely daily or weekly now than in May 2019. Such findings are upsetting and, whilst help is made available through universities in the form of counselling, many of the services feel overwhelmed by the demand. Prior to the pandemic, waiting lists were often months long, making it near-on impossible to access the necessary help currently.

Table showing comparison of responses to students being questioned about life satisfaction. It shows a drop of 4% in the numbers recording a high level of happiness post March 2020 (now 12%).

To use a term overused in the past year and one I wish never to repeat: we are living in unprecedented times. Everyone is struggling and trying to do their best, including the universities. What must not be overlooked, however, is the impact such disruption has caused to students’ mental health and, as a knock-on effect, their grades. The petition to ensure mitigation policies are introduced in UK universities nationally is available here; separate petitions are available for each university should you wish to sign them too.

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