Prioritising students’ mental health and wellbeing during COVID

20 Nov 2020
By Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor at University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)
From the shift to online learning to national lockdowns, 2020 has been a difficult year for university students. All of the uncertainty and upheaval created by the pandemic is in addition to the ‘normal’ apprehension and anxiety that many students feel during their time at university.

Whether it’s moving out of the family home for the first time, achieving the final grade they want or facing the unknown after graduation, university can be stressful and unnerving, even without a global health crisis. The good news for students is that universities have learnt a lot from this difficult time and are doing more than ever to support mental health and wellbeing.

In many ways, the pandemic has helped expose inequalities and brought core issues about wellbeing to the fore. For example, the lockdown in March and the transition to online learning revealed the true scale of digital poverty in the UK. This is simply not acceptable, and every university that I know of responded by setting up special funds to help students access IT and internet. At UWE Bristol, we have provided students from disadvantaged backgrounds with more than £500,000 worth of IT hardware this year, to ensure everyone can access online learning and fully engage with their course.

Furthermore, with blended learning now adopted by most UK universities, it is essential that students not only have the IT resources they need, but the knowledge and confidence on how to engage with online learning. This has become an important part of preserving student mental health. At UWE Bristol, we introduced a new Block Zero module at the beginning of the academic year to help new and returning students adjust to the new way of learning and to signpost them to the support that we offer.

We must recognise that students will go through a rollercoaster of emotions during these strange times and ensure that we have the safety nets in place to help us spot when students are struggling. Working closely with students’ unions, operating 24-hour crisis lines and enabling family and friends to let universities know when they see signs of mental health struggles are some of the ways that we can make this possible. Universities are also exploring the benefits of learner analytics in monitoring student mental health. By tracking students’ engagement with their online learning, universities can more easily detect if a student is struggling. It’s not about being Big Brother, it’s about finding ways to help and spotting when it’s time to ask, ‘Are you ok, do you need help?’

Self-isolation, quarantine and lockdowns have impacted us all, but for students living in university accommodation, their experience can be particularly difficult. Most of the students living in university accommodation are first-year students, 18 or 19 years old living away from home for the first time. To be told they must self-isolate, away from their family and in a flat with people they’ve only recently met can be daunting and lonely. It is crucial that universities continue to engage during these difficult periods – that online studies can continue if the student is well enough, that wellbeing staff keep in touch with individual students and that practical services such as food boxes are available. Students who are self-isolating should never be made to feel alone or go without the essentials, and I am glad to see that universities and accommodation services across the UK have adapted quickly to offer this support.

As we look to the future, I believe there’s much that the sector can learn from this difficult year to improve the university offering. For example, rather than returning to the old way of over-assessing students with exams, we could be more creative in how we engage with students, creating an environment where they can thrive and which reduces student anxiety.  Let’s learn from this crisis and build a better university experience for our students where mental health and wellbeing is at the heart of everything we do.

Professor Steve West is a guest on the latest episode of our Accommodation Matters podcast, on student mental health and wellbeing - you can download the episode here.

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Professor Steve West is Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and chair of UUK Mental Health in Higher Education Advisory Group. Before working in higher education, Professor West trained as a podiatrist and podiatric surgeon in London, working in the NHS and private/commercial sector. at University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)