Listening to Students - How the pandemic transformed the higher education experience

Posted by Nicola Frampton

When coronavirus first began to spread in the UK back in March 2020, Student Minds made the decision to pause and listen. We wanted to truly understand what students were experiencing, how the pandemic was affecting them and what we could do to help. We gathered insights from thousands of sources and conducted our own primary research to build as accurate a picture as possible. Almost 18 months later, following continued listening, the launch of Student Space and a shift to online delivery of our peer support and training, in August 2021, we collated and published our findings, reflections and recommendations in ‘University Mental Health: Life in a Pandemic’. The report explores the wide-reaching impacts of Covid-19 on higher education communities, focusing on four themes from Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter: Live, Learn, Work and Support. By exploring the disruption to each of these themes and taking a holistic approach to student mental health, we were able to develop policy recommendations for universities, students’ unions, and the Government, which we believe will support students as we move beyond the initial impacts of the pandemic. 

What we learnt  

It was clear from the outset that students’ lives would be significantly disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. What was not immediately clear, however, was how long restrictions would be in place. Over the course of 18 months, students saw two academic years affected, with many submitting final assignments from their childhood bedrooms, attending virtual Freshers’ Fairs from their new student accommodation, or celebrating graduation in their own back gardens. Students’ university experiences were flipped upside-down. The disruption resulted in wide-reaching impacts, including their mental health, academic experience, social connectedness, and access to support.  

In April/May 2021, we conducted primary research to better understand students’ experiences of the pandemic, and we later shared the findings in our report. Some headlines included:  

  • 74% of respondents said that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.  
  • 49% of respondents said that the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their financial situation. 
  • 82% of respondents said the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their academic experience.  
  • 65% of respondents said they needed additional help/advice during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of these, just 19% actually got the help they needed.  

Evidently, large numbers of students faced significant challenges during the pandemic, and these are highly likely to continue to be felt as we head into the 2021/22 academic year. Particularly as, despite all restrictions having now been lifted in England, many universities continue to deliver a ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ approach, with some aspects of the university experience delivered online. Though this approach can benefit students - for instance, improving accessibility by providing lecture recordings - we also know that online learning comes with its own unique set of challenges for students. For example, our research found:  

  • 71% of students felt isolated due to online learning, 
  • 18% of students did not have the resources they needed to access online learning effectively, 
  • 24% did not have the space to access online learning effectively.  

Recognising these challenges, along with the vital need for enhanced financial support options for students and the importance of planning for the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic, we developed a set of key policy recommendations aimed at the Government and higher education sector. Our hope is that through the adoption of these recommendations, students will be given the best possible opportunities to thrive and succeed in their education, regardless of the challenges presented by the pandemic and the rapid changes they have faced.  

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Our recommendations  

A full, detailed list of our recommendations can be found on page 69 of our report. Here, I present a summary of recommendations, with a particular focus on what can be done to support students to succeed with a ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ approach to learning.  

  • Universities should ensure that all students are aware of the financial support available to them and how they can access this. Based on our listening and insights work, we recognise that many students are unaware of the financial aid available to them or face barriers in accessing this. Targeted efforts should be made to ensure that all students are aware of the financial support available to them. 
  • Universities should co-produce approaches to pedagogy with flexibility and sensitivity to students’ individual needs and preferences. This is particularly important for curriculum design, assessment design and mode of delivery. Students should be active partners in decision-making and have the opportunity to co-create approaches to learning, including informing decisions about the use of technology in their education, to ensure any technology supports or enhances students’ academic experience.  
  • Universities and the Government should put measures in place to tackle and prevent digital poverty. All students should be able to access online learning environments without facing financial barriers. Therefore, universities and the Government should monitor students’ access to the appropriate technology (e.g. laptops, strong wifi, etc.) at various stages of their university experience and take steps to remove barriers that may impact their access to such technologies.  
  • The Government and universities should prioritise prevention and early intervention of mental health problems through greater funding and active cultural change. Children and young people should have access to early support hubs to tackle emerging mental health issues at the earliest possible stages. Universities should also endeavour to create a culture in which students feel safe and supported to disclose mental health issues and take a whole-university approach to support student mental health. 
  • Universities, the Government and the NHS, should plan for the mental health impacts of the pandemic to outlast the pandemic itself. Even when the immediate threat of the coronavirus has subsided, the cumulative stress, grief, and mental health impact of the pandemic will potentially negatively impact students and staff for years afterwards if not properly managed. As such, stakeholders such as universities, the Government and the NHS should develop long-term plans to ensure the appropriate levels of support are available to those who may need it in the coming years.  
  • Universities and students’ unions should ensure that support services are equally accessible to all students. Culturally competent approaches to promoting mental health literacy must be taken.  
  • Institutions must empower staff to accommodate these recommendations by providing the appropriate resourcing, including protected staff time, compensation, and training. The additional workload required to deliver quality, flexible, co-produced provision should be reflected in capacity planning to allow staff to maintain healthy workplace behaviours. 

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen huge shifts in how higher education communities operate and subsequently how students access their education. Over the next 18 months, as we (hopefully) continue to live without government restrictions and as ‘Covid cohorts’ continue in our higher education system, we may see further shifts in academic engagement, delivery and assessment. It’s therefore vital that universities and the Government put in place the appropriate support for students, empowering them to thrive and succeed. This is possible with the right funding, listening, and co-production.


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