Coronavirus risk assessments need to cover mental as well as physical health

As newspaper stories lament the loss of "sex and wild parties" from the student experience, Jim Dickinson considers components we might regard as essential.

The thing about most of higher education is that it’s a whole bunch of components bundled together for one price.

When only some of those components are safe to deliver, and others are heavily restricted or missing, all sorts of problems emerge.

Imagine a Now! Album where half the tracks are missing, some are only available to listen to on a Wednesday and you can only listen to some three times before they self-destruct. Then imagine renting a lovely pair of headphones to listen to it on, only to find that you aren’t allowed to or don’t need to use them all year.

Imagine the record company spent weeks trying to fit what it thought were the “core” tracks into this release, only for you to point out that your priority was actually listening to Vanilla’s No Way No Way (Ma Na Ma Na).

Or imagine that your Now! album is one part of an extensive vinyl collection which spans a scratched Carpenters Greatest Hits with no sleeve, to a mint condition translucent Unknown Pleasures (the debut studio album by English rock band Joy Division, released in 1979 by Factory Records). Everything is exactly the same price, because it’s all music.

Then imagine you chose the Unknown Pleasures vinyl but are now being sent to the track listing on a Spotify playlist.

Settle down

As we get closer to September and clearing coverage cranks up, a real debate over how necessary or valuable some of the components of student life are in the context of Covid-19 comes into sharp focus.

Let’s say that these components could all be put on a continuum between “core/essential” and “non core/optional”. I know, I know. But run with me for a minute. Instinctively, we tend to think that teaching is “core”, but even then there’s an ongoing row about how much of it can be done online.

Ironically when we decided to promote “blended” before we really worked out what that would mean, we made the result harder to explain / justify. Hence para two of this Times piece pointing out that “as little as three hours a week of face-to-face teaching” will be on offer.

Face to face contact hours are, lest we forget, frequently higher in other countries and correlated with better student wellbeing. If you’re thinking “ah, well three a week is hardly a cut” it’s just as easy to say “well three a week was a problem then, and it really is now”.

Surrounding this is what I would call a spirited defence of online teaching. There’s no doubt that online education can be done well, and there’s also no doubt that lots of effort is going in to making the experience good. But lots of the defence of next term’s contact hours being online sounds like it comes from a quite a privileged perspective.

It’s a signal and noise problem. Students aren’t so much moaning about online teaching as being bad, as they are reacting to an assumption that their experience of fighting for kitchen table space or spending all their waking hours in a nine foot square room will be “a great experience” because their modules have been rewritten for Zoom.

Commuter students commute to campus as a form of escape from home, and for residentials I constantly encounter people that don’t understand quite how cramped student accommodation is these days. Do we think those local HMOs are still operated by benign “mom and pop” couples? Do we think those local private halls are all up to the standard of Unite?

We should think again. Space – both communal and individual – has all been value engineered out. Students rent tiny houses or flats with no communal space because they are close to campus. Surely we are not seriously suggesting that a group of five students can complete a degree (or even a term) from the same house or flat, popping out occasionally in a mask for some milk and some F2F teaching?

Online teaching plus distance learning from a family home is one thing. F2F teaching plus residential attendance is another. Online teaching plus residential attendance is surely a recipe for disaster if facilities on campus are closed or heavily rationed.

Upside down

But let’s set aside that “teaching” end of the telescope for a minute. The problem with the main thrust of that Times headline is that the component(s) it references sound like they’re at the very opposite end of that essential/non-essential continuum.

Headline: Welcome to freshers’ week, coronavirus-style: no wild parties and no sex

On the day that story ran, there were three common takes. The disparaging version said something like “well, the selfish young will jolly well have to sacrifice”. The benign version said “well, Gen Z will be creative and will sacrifice”. The amusing one said “no wild parties and now sex? Sounds like my university haha.”

Other takes were available. The anti-maskers tried to run with “It’s all a conspiracy! They (or no-one) will die! Open the universities!” – although this lot also want to close universities, because mickey mouse courses etc.

But none of the above takes are what really matters for me. It’s not the formal contact hours – there was hardly any of them anyway. It’s not the “wild parties and sex” either – there’s was never that much of that either. It’s all the in between moments. It’s not the big dramatic events, or the things in the memories album. It’s the humdrum dredge of the day to day. It’s the self-directed learning and the group projects. It’s being in the library, chatting to people in the queue at Tescos and the longer chats in the longer queues for a cup of coffee on campus. It’s someone looking in on you, and out for you, and you reciprocating. Getting all of that right is the glue in the bundle.

A university that’s conscious of this “day to day” issue and has a plan around it would, for me, be one that’s genuinely student centred and mental-health aware. I’m just not seeing one yet.

Rotten tomatoes

Arguably, it’s pretty rotten to insist that someone has to move house to be near to your campus, then give them nothing much to do on that campus, for practical reasons not require them to be online synchronously when there is something to do, and then expect them to not socialise (and then threaten to fine them if they do!)

This isn’t about asking young people to exercise social responsibility – it’s about not setting young people up to fail or be the fall guys for bad public health planning. If our answer to the question “where are students supposed to be all week, and who are they supposed to spend it with” is “in their room, alone” we have a monumental mental health crisis coming. One that’s even bigger than the monumental student mental health crisis we’ve already spent a decade trying to fix.

Even before the pandemic, our research found almost half of all students felt lonely on a daily or weekly basis. 15 per cent said they had no true friends at university. These were things directly correlated with continuation and career confidence. And they were worse for all the sets of students we tend to worry about – disabled students, black and minority ethnic students, international students and those students living at home.

And don’t just take my word for it. Student Minds’ charter reminds us that belonging and social integration are important not just for student wellbeing, but also for “academic achievement” and “persistence to graduation”. We have a need to belong to a community, have an emotional connection with others, have the attention of others, feel supported and have a sense of status. Conversely, student loneliness has been shown to be the strongest overall predictor of mental distress in the student population.

In an ideal world, government would take a lead and have solutions ready on issues like independent living, independent learning, healthy relationships and wellbeing. Ideally a high-profile, sector-wide taskforce would be active in finding solutions to these problems in a Covid context. But it’s not clear that Damian Hinds’ March 2019 announcement ever resulted in anything other than a few press clippings in the Before times, let alone now. Did it even ever meet? Because “measures to help people make a smooth transition into higher education and help students maintain good mental health” would come in handy right now.

Locally, students unions and their clubs and societies can and will play an enormously important role here – our research found close links between participation and continuation confidence – and so SUs need their net budget (not their grant, their net expenditure budget after a commercial income collapse) to reflect the vital role they could play. It’ll still be tiny in the grand scheme of things. “Niche”, if you will.

But that alone won’t cut it. When we did our research we concluded from free text comments that it was vital to maximise participation in activities and groups. But we also concluded that there needed to be a “whole institution commitment” to solving student loneliness. That means that this issue has to become the partial responsibility of everyone.

It’s up to all of us

Module leaders should be thinking about students forming friendships within the teaching. It means doing all we can to retain the student employment we had, and paying more students where in the past we’ve relied on volunteers. Phone banks of students calling others regularly should be on the list. Allocation of space on campus to make social mixing possible shouldn’t be an afterthought.

Maybe it means splitting online classes into tutor groups of 10-12 as mini communities as an easy first stage. Perhaps it means more peer to peer activities throughout modules. Maybe now is the time to stop pretending that 60 people is a “seminar”.

It could mean buying lots of blankets now for viable outdoor socialising in the autumn and winter. It could mean walking tours around cities and campuses so freshers (and others) can make friends. It ought to mean a huge ramping up of peer support schemes, involving graduates as well as current students.

It will all need leadership. Someone on Twitter tells me that “funding for all of our departmental social activities has been cut wholesale. It was described as low hanging fruit, but they are some of the most important activities for building community and forming friendships…but they won’t happen going forward, it’s negligent”. They won’t be the only one.

What it all really means is that when a year ago everyone was happy to say “we should take mental health as seriously as physical health” it now means looking like we meant it. This time all the apps, awareness weeks and top tips in the world aren’t going to cut it. It means looking at the reams of physical risk assessment already completed, and adding a bunch of rows to the table on the deep risks to student mental health of a socially distanced term.

Crucially, it means we should only think we’re “ready” when we’re confident that the experience we’ve sold is mentally safe as well as Covid-secure.

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