The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the experiences of university students and the running of higher education institutions. On 21 December, Cumberland Lodge hosted a seminar for international students across the UK to come together to discuss their experiences of university throughout the pandemic.
Dr Jenna Mittelmeier, Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, led the seminar, starting by asking how students felt about their studies over the last two years. Discussions highlighted the effect of social isolation on mental and physical health due to lack of interaction with peers and participation in extra-curricular activities. The frustrations of having to adapt plans and anticipate the unexpected according to restrictions were burdensome for most and amplified by the anxieties experienced post lockdown when restrictions had eased. Students also voiced the consequences that fewer face-to-face interactions had on course progression (lab-based research, data collection etc.) and the technical difficulties encountered by lecturers and pupils when studying virtually.
Conversations also specified the advantages of virtual learning, including flexibility for students to attend webinars and online events, and more time for family/other activities as a result of not commuting. The benefits of working from home also proved convenient for some students, who felt safer and studied with more comfort and fewer distractions resulting in increased productivity and improved technical skills.
Students were then asked to examine what changes they would like their university to keep post COVID-19. Most participants reiterated that a degree of virtual learning is beneficial so that students can work more flexibly and efficiently, striking a healthy balance between work and home commitments. The use of new online tools, such as Teams and Padlet, were also valuable to aide those with unpredictable schedules and learning difficulties. Some praised their university for the increased support provided during the pandemic with regards to well-being support, funding and extensions.
Conversely, problematic situations included technology challenges caused by lack of training and the effects on physical health, for example eyesight, or back pain. Students also highlighted the inability to access library books, WiFi, technology and equipment necessary for virtual learning as particularly tough, consequently impacting their experience and progress.
Going forward, students made a list of suggestions that they would like to have implemented by higher education establishments. These largely involved ensuring that students were fully equipped with the necessary technology/equipment (e.g laptop loan schemes, WiFi booster packages), training and internet access to allow virtual learning to go ahead, as well providing adequate space on campus. They would also like to see cost reimbursement from institutions that do not offer the format of learning initially promised, and suitable extensions to incorporate disruptions caused by virtual-only learning.
Having experienced university during the COVID-19 pandemic and having my research impacted by the restrictions, I understand and sympathise with my peers and fellow students/researchers with the problems encountered over the last two years, and hope higher education establishments take into consideration the solutions offered to ease the stress on students during this time. It is also clear that whilst struggles continue for many, some have also benefitted from the changes incurred due to the pandemic. Whilst I support and see the value of in-person teaching, I think a hybrid of in-person and virtual teaching may be helpful for the majority. I am very glad I had the opportunity to reflect and exchange ideas with friendly faces before 2021 drew to a close. Having the chance to be actively involved in this seminar made me realise the extent of the role COVID-19 has played in the experiences of others and let me appreciate that we are all in this together!