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The pandemic is petering out, we’re out of lockdown, and life has gone back to as near-normal as could be hoped, for now.
But what’s left of the students who had their university experiences completely thwarted, pivotal years of their lives stolen and their mental health left damaged as a result of the past 18 months?
As a student who ‘graduated’ during the pandemic – albeit without a graduation ceremony in sight – I had half of my university experience completely altered. Approaching the Easter holidays in my second year, myself and my housemates left for home, expecting that it would all be over in a matter of weeks.
Little did we know that the rest of our university experience would never be the same again. That, for what was left of our degree, we would be trapped inside, isolating, or even with COVID-19 ourselves.
Among being able to speak about my own experiences of isolation, unravelling mental health and fighting tooth and nail to even finish my degree, I spoke to other students for World Student Day about what life has been like since.
Almost exactly a year ago, I tested positive for COVID-19. I had just moved into a student house for my third year, I didn’t know the people I was living with well and my symptoms became so bad one day that I nearly called an ambulance. My body felt like it had given up on me. I couldn’t leave my bed and the only experience I can compare it to is when I was in a critical condition in hospital a few years ago.
While my physical symptoms improved, my mental health declined. I was petrified. The unknown prospect of what long-term damages coronavirus could inflict on my body, mixed with a frosty house environment, left me feeling completely isolated and utterly trapped.
While isolation is recommended if you test positive for COVID-19, this type of isolation was overwhelming. In my state of fever, I had checked flights to other countries so that as soon as I was better I could flee the stiflingly cold atmosphere that surrounded me in my student house. I had shrivelled up from both the lack of empathy, kindness or care I was being given, but also the fact that I had likely sobbed every drop of fluid from my body as I howled down the phone to my mum and friends that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was worried I was going to do something to myself.
Student Minds, a mental health charity for students, said its research in May 2021 showed ‘74% of students felt that the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health and wellbeing’. Student Minds said the pandemic had ‘wide-reaching and profound’ effects on students, from their ‘education to living arrangements, social connectedness and financial security’.
Ben, a student who has just gone into his second year, spoke to UNILAD about how he feels upon returning. ‘It’s been a very weird experience being chucked straight into it, with no smooth transition and without that orientation that first years would’ve got,’ he said.
Having missed out on freshers week and getting to know other students or lecturers on his course, Ben said his year group are ‘crashing freshers’ to desperately try to make up for lost time and ‘get that experience [they] never had’.
‘It’s been strange that last week was the first time I ever met most my course mates in person,’ Ben said. However, he noted that luckily he can ‘already feel that those connections to lecturers and tutors getting a lot tighter’.
Graduating in 2020, Chike only had the last few months of his degree, but said his final piece of work as a student of an arts degree was nearly jeopardised because of the pandemic.
‘I was going to do my final major project at uni but then I had to find all the materials for my stop motion film in a panic buy, because art shops were considered non-essential at the time. It was very hectic, because I had to move the entire film to just working in my room,’ he explained.
Cathy similarly undertook a creative degree, studying Drama and English Literature at the University of Manchester, but believes the university wasn’t ‘doing enough pre-pandemic’ to help set students up for careers after student graduate. Cathy recalls being told ‘98% of students from the course are employed’ after graduation, but said ‘at least 50% of those students are realistically employed in maccie’s or something’.
With businesses closing down and being stretched, not only was it harder to find a job, but many students have also missed out on vital work experience they desperately needed to get their careers off the ground.
Chike noted the pressure he’s facing in getting a job post-pandemic. He subsequently lost motivation, finding it harder to find the energy to take on projects having to work from home, questioning: ‘What is it I’m even working towards anymore?’
Student Minds said it was in ‘awe’ of students and the way they were adapting ‘to the ongoing changes, challenges and uncertainty’. However, for many, the struggle continues.
Cathy has similarly struggled to find a job, scrambling to find part-time work to fund the many projects she has been doing for free, due to many creative industries being severely underfunded.
‘This is the thing, people are so quick to just blame the industry, but why do they expect you to work for free? It’s because we are taught from an early age that the arts are irrelevant,’ she said.
Cathy noted that money comes from investors and how, ‘there are very few government funded initiatives for creative projects, which is really interesting because a lot can be done through art’.
Student Minds has created an information hub for those struggling in their job searches post-pandemic, offering advice on how to face and cope with such challenges.
Having been advised she should work in a call centre due to the very few jobs being available in her area of expertise and ‘basically told, do it yourself’, Cathy has been left feeling depressed, but ‘isn’t surprised’.
I think there’s a point to be made here, that maybe they would’ve offered support after we left if the higher education system wasn’t privatised.
The fact is, that once we stop paying them money, they completely lose interest in us.
Students aren’t seen as the future anymore, we’re seen as cash cows.
Cathy said there was a ‘really strong case to be made against the university giving us a refund’ and that she has been left ‘frustrated’, feeling that no one wants to help those in her situation.
Despite the university experience being completely diminished and haphazardly thrown together online, students still had to pay full tuition fees during the pandemic.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson even voiced the opinion that students should not be charged full fees if not returning to face-to-face teaching.
Student Minds also called on the government to provide a universal support payment to all students, after research revealed that ‘49% of students were negatively impacted financially during the pandemic’, preventing them from ‘fully engaging in their university experience’.
Furthermore, the lack of mental health support Cathy was given while at university has left a long-lasting impact, not only on her wellbeing and struggle to find a job, but her view of higher education.
Student Minds commented that, despite many universities and students’ unions going ‘above and beyond’, the charity believes ‘more could have, and still can be done to support students’. It called for ‘greater financial support, academic support and mental health support from both the Government and universities’, in its ‘Life in a Pandemic’ report.
Chike, like Cathy, didn’t get a graduation ceremony. However, while Chike was ‘very sad’ about it, Cathy doubts she will even attend hers if the postponed event does take place.
‘I definitely won’t be shaking hands with anyone if I do. I have a lot of bad blood with the university,’ she explained.
Despite the lack of support from the university bodies themselves, both Cathy and Chike noted their appreciation of their lecturers.
Chike’s lecturers were ‘a bit more supportive’, emailing him for updates during his final project and asking how he was coping. Cathy spoke of the conversations around mental health with her Drama lecturers as being ‘amazing’.
However, Chike thought ‘teaching should have gone back to face-to-face a lot sooner than it did’, questioning why universities weren’t allowed at the same time schools were.
Cathy believes the government has not just ‘completely forgotten’ about students and postgrads, but ‘intentionally ignored’ them.
‘From signing petitions and the uni saying to speak to the government, then going to the government and them saying to speak to uni. It was a blame game, where both tried to shift the blame when they knew they were both responsible and should have both been doing things to help the young people of this country,’ she said.
It’s definitely a government issue with mental health. We can ask universities to do so much, and they didn’t provide enough support, but also where was the funding for this support. The government is building HS2 and that is millions of pounds which could’ve been put into our NHS.
While the lack of face-to-face teaching impacted many, Cathy believe blended and online learning was not as bad as it first perhaps seemed. ‘Although I personally am a big believer in the merits of in-person teaching, I think [for] the people who were struggling, online learning was a really good thing,’ she said.
However, Cathy did not agree with how it was ‘tested out’ on students amid the pandemic, and fees not reduced as a result of such tentative times and reduced contact hours.
It’s fair enough to have to be trying to figure out how it’s done, but the fact is we didn’t get any compensation for figuring out how its done.
We’ve come to learn from you, not you to learn from us. In fact, we’re paying to learn from you.
Chike’s advice for students and postgraduates who may be struggling is to try to find a ‘balance’.
If you’re having a bit of an off day, it’s okay to just take an off day. I think the government, or society as a whole really has brainwashed us into thinking we can’t have these off days and take time to chill, relax and reboot and that we always have to be working or going out.
However, while all three students offered sympathy for current students and advice on how to get through testing times in one’s degree, they could not help but draw back to their feelings of isolation, disappointment and the idea of being forgotten.
While Ben is happy for life to get back to normal, he expressed frustration at the university having ‘completely forgotten and brushed aside’ the pandemic, as if the ‘last year or two’ didn’t occur.
He added: ‘And all the issues and the scandal of having to pay full tuition is just going to be ignored now.’
Cathy stressed that students never ‘hated the prospect of blended learning as it can be really helpful for most people’, but it was the way the universities ‘handled it which was an issue and feeds into us feeling forgotten about’.
Despite the struggle of the pandemic, Cathy said she was ‘a little bit grateful that the university’s facade didn’t work’.
Because I think they want to forget about us, because they made a really really big mistake and didn’t take any responsibility for it and want everyone to forget about it. But I’m not going to forget about it and I hope nobody else does.
Cathy hopes that the so-called forgotten students of the pandemic will not forget how the government and higher education system acted, and hopes ‘it shows in the votes of next election’.
While she admits remembering can be painful, the trauma encompassing the pandemic prompting our brains to try and ‘block it out’, she urges people to address the fact that ‘people who are supposed to know what to do in a crisis did that’.
‘We can forgive these things, everyone makes mistakes, even people in power, but to notoriously f*ck up, there’s some intention behind it, there has to be some intention behind it. I just don’t see how anyone could have thought that was a genuinely good idea to do all the things they did to us,’ Cathy said.
Student Space, run by Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity is here to help you as you prepare for university with expert support and wellbeing advice. Whether you’re stressed about your studies, personal life, or if you have concerns about what university life will look like, you don’t have to struggle on your own
Explore their dedicated support services, tips, tools and student stories to find the help you need. If you are in need of support please do reach out by texting ‘STUDENT’ to 85258 to start a conversation today. We are here to help 24/7
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