Telling students to “prepare for the worst” isn’t good enough

Dan Chevalier is Vice President Education and Welfare at Winchester SU

The story of last academic year has been told before – students trapped in their bedrooms and kitchens attempting to adapt to “blended learning” that, regardless of how it was delivered, couldn’t recreate the campus experience for those who wanted or needed it.

Last term, students’ unions had to balance finding ways to capture lessons learnt from the pandemic – many in the interests of accessibility – with re-igniting the sense of physical community on campus.

While most people I talk to had a good term, the pandemic clearly isn’t over – and it has all left lingering questions. How do we fully re-engage our student body given the traumatic 18 months they have just been put through? How do we ensure our support is flexible and “fit for purpose” in this post-lockdown year?

And with Omicron still on the rise everywhere outside of London, how do we address the uncertainty and student anxiety that further restrictions could cause?

Listening to learners

To try to work out what has been happening and how we should respond, I sat down before the break to reflect on the stories of students I spoke to last term.

First, the pandemic reminded us of an ever-growing mental health crisis and exacerbated the strain that individuals were under. Students who were accessing regular support with routines in place to manage their wellbeing told me they had their life upturned.

This is challenging for anyone to handle, and that is before you begin to think about additional factors such as family, homelife and backgrounds of students. International students I spoke to were left stranded in box-room halls unable to travel home whilst flatmates were able to move back home locally. Everyone’s homelives are different.

Some students that I represent don’t feel safe or accepted at home for who they are, or may not have had a stable home environment, let alone a space for quiet learning. Moving home for Christmas, only to be told to stay there for months on end, was deeply damaging for many.

Medical and health placement students were thrown into working during a pandemic with stretched hospital services and expected to pay for the privilege of helping to save the NHS. Students I’ve spoken to recall how traumatic it was to work in the wards during the height of the crisis – regularly in emergency meetings with their course team to hear where and when they would be placed next with uncertainty over how high-risk the environment would be.

It’s important that we don’t brush past these experiences with the mindset that “everyone experienced the height of the pandemic, it was tough but now it’s passed”. There are students nationally who are suffering with increased anxiety, depression PTSD and loneliness because of this – they haven’t had the chance to process what they have seen, and so early in their professional development as a still studying student.

Social anxiety has also heightened, whether health-based or social interaction-focused. In some instances, students having spent large amounts of time isolated have felt like they have lost their “small talk” and networking skills or feel more anxious in social settings communicating face to face.

And where it is hard to hide from, students may feel more anxious about their health, hygiene and being around others still – especially in the height of winter flu season and with new unknown variants potentially circling.

What can we do?

To address all of this, we need to ensure our support is consistent, accessible and adapted to meet the needs of students now. Both higher education and students’ union support services are likely to have been designed for different students with different needs – and so now we need to involve students in rapid transformation rather than emergency tweaks to keep things running.

Student engagement activities would benefit from having a wellbeing focus, whether overtly or subtle. Wellbeing cafés and lunch and learns, hot chocolate and colouring and other mindfulness activities with advisors and/or welfare officers present are great informal ways to engage students with services and promote the support on offer.

Often students can feel anxious or have concerns around seeking help – it seems intimidating and formal. It means that activities that offer first level steps to introduce our students to self-management activities they can do is important. It’s also about offering a safe, friendly environment for students to speak up and begin their journey to accessing any support they need.

Social anxiety is something that needs to be acknowledged in the creation of any activities – from simple things like the layout and floorplan of events to maximise the feeling of student comfort and avoid having that feeling of one person entering a room full of a wall of eyes. Providing opportunities for students who may feel lonely to access events and spaces that offer some semi-structured networking is also a great chance for students to make new possibly lifelong friends in a safe space.

Disruption is the enemy of learning

News coverage over Omicron, government issues and disagreements over tackling it, and confused and last-minute guidance to universities provides (again) a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety for students.

We may not know how the rest of this academic year is going to play out, but rather than asking everyone to prepare to “cope” with that uncertainty, we should be fighting for as much stability and certainty as possible.

It should be everyone’s job in higher education to consider how they might reduce anxiety in others, and when changes or restrictions have to implemented, we should demand that they are communicated quickly, clearly and with humanity – ensuring that support is flexible and adaptive so that no student gets left behind.

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