Entering a new year, we face tougher coronavirus restrictions yet again in Scotland. The current advice from the Scottish Government for students living away from home is to remain in their student accommodation and not visit family. Students should follow the current travel restrictions that are in place in Scotland and should not leave their local area. Students will be taught online throughout January and February, with most returning to campuses at the start of March. Only those whose attendance is critical and whose education cannot be delivered remotely or postponed will be allowed back before March. For most students, this means online learning is inevitable.
In March 2020, universities closed putting students’ education on hold due to the national measures announced to control the coronavirus pandemic. After a long and unusual summer, it was time for schools, colleges and universities to resume but not in the way we once knew. For the safety of everyone’s health, and despite encouraging freshers to move in in September, courses were moved online so learning could still take place. This has resulted in students feeling unmotivated, unsupported and mentally drained.
At the time, online teaching seemed like the best, and perhaps only, solution, but few considered the long-term impact. Students were forced to grin and bear it; get on with assessments with limited support and access to resources, make new friends within the confined space of their assigned flats and settle into a new location, potentially miles away from where they are most comfortable. The beginning of first year is a daunting time for anyone, and the 2020 cohort did it all through the unprecedented uncertainties of a worldwide pandemic.
Melissa Fonseca from Edinburgh Napier University shares her experience: “I believe if we were doing classes in person we would achieve more as we love to share our ideas together, it helps inspire us. I’ve really missed the social aspect of seeing my course mates regularly.”
She adds, “Honestly I don’t feel any support from my university. What I notice most mentally is a lack of motivation. I think lecturers need to push us to collaborate more, even if it’s just having our cameras on, so we don’t feel so disconnected.”
With exams and assessments continuing despite the circumstances, students are, understandably, feeling extreme amounts of stress. A study conducted by The Insight Network shows that one in five students currently suffer from a mental health issue. Depression and anxiety are the two most common mental health disorders experienced by students.
The research also found that around one in three university students have experienced an issue for which they felt the need for professional help. Most education facilities now have a counselling team or something similar to offer as a support system. Due to a lot of students suffering mentally from the stress these services are usually overwhelmed and have long waiting lists. Norman Lamb, the ex-health minister found that students across the UK are forced to wait up to twelve weeks for help from their universities. These services are now even harder to access than usual and have also had to go partly online, leaving young people lost with no one to turn to for help.
Kerr MacDonald, a former student from the City of Glasgow college, explained his digital learning experience: “I dropped out of college because I was struggling to adapt to the new online learning. I feel like we were left on our own to fend for ourselves this year.”
Kerr added, “It has definitely affected my mental health for the worse after already going through such a hard year. I think that if I had more support I may have stayed on. However, I felt let down by lecturers I have known for two years and decided it wasn’t for me.”
Across Scotland students are feeling both let down and unsupported. There has been a lack of resources during online learning as access to libraries and computers on campus has been limited. Lecturers have had the difficult task of moving their classes online and learning how to teach in a whole new way. Students and teachers alike have struggled with the switch to online learning, with technical issues being just the tip of the iceberg.
The impact of Covid-19 means universities are facing significant financial risks due to pension costs and a high drop-out rate. The Institute for Fiscal Studies annual report on education spending said there will be shortfalls in colleges and universities in the future. They estimate that the total size of the university sector’s losses could be anywhere between £3 billion and £19 billion. This financial loss is concerning for students who fear their already limited support and resources may be axed to make up for lost profits.
Sarah Smith, a student from Queen Margaret University told me, “It has put a lot of stress on me, I feel like the workload is never ending and there’s so much more to keep track of which is draining.”
“A lot of our lectures are pre-recorded, but I think it would be more beneficial to the students to be able to speak and discuss online with our lecturers.”
The digital education system is not working for students in Scotland. Now more than ever young people need support to continue with their studies and universities are failing to provide it. Universities must make concerted efforts to strengthen their mental health and well-being support if students are going to properly adapt to this new normal. As we approach the anniversary of when online learning began, it’s disappointing that decisive action is yet to be taken. No wonder students are so frustrated.