Sun. Oct 24th, 2021


This month, there’s a sense of anticipation in the air as students like me begin to return to university in record numbers. While students have been allowed on campus at various points over the past 18 months, this academic term will be the first time many will be able to organise nights out in university bars, arrange society get togethers and, of course, attend classes and lectures.

Durham University, the University of Bath and the University of Sheffield are among the universities holding lectures in person in some departments. After a year in which the opposite has been dictated, being in a room with lots of people feels unsettling. But with cautious optimism, I’m looking forward to the spontaneity of in-person interaction. Some institutions, however, such as the University of Edinburgh, Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, are holding smaller seminars face-to-face, but keeping virtual lectures this year. It seems some of the short-term fixes adopted during the pandemic may be here to stay.

There are valid reasons to keep some online learning as part of a hybrid model. It is safer as we head into autumn with Covid-19 still in circulation, and can be more accessible for some disabled students. But it’s not without its downsides, devoid as it is of the interaction, warmth and energy you find in a room full of similar-minded people. I know from my experience as a first-year student last year how easy it is to fall behind on online lectures and classes: conversations with teachers felt detached and connections with coursemates cursory. “It feels like we’re stuck on pause,” says Sophia, a second-year maths student at the University of Leeds. “Everything else is moving forward – the schools, events, time itself , and we’re stuck staring at screens”.

For first-year students who will have already suffered from two years of disrupted learning due to intermittent lockdowns and bouts of self-isolation, these educational obstacles will be particularly challenging. Fees from increased student numbers could fund catch-up services and pastoral support; for example, at the University of Birmingham, freshers have been given methods on how to study and succeed on the course.

Some students may not have sat any exams since their GCSES: to ease the pressure next summer, universities could offer students the option to defer exams or make their results exempt. In the cases where this isn’t possible, they could make tests open-book or replace them with coursework.

And just as importantly as academic guidance, this cohort will need pastoral care too. “We need transition mentors and points of contact,” says Hope, a first-year student at University College London. Her last year of school was characterised by stress and self-isolation, and she tells me she’s struggling “socially” and nervous about going back into big groups. Mental health services will be vital in helping students through this huge moment of transition: from school to university, from lockdown to normal life.

For second-year undergraduates who spent most of their first year stuck in campus accommodation, putting on activities reminiscent of a typical freshers week could create the sense of community that has so far been missing from their university experience, and dispel worries that established friendships have already been formed. “Right now, any event that simply introduces students to each other is worth it,” says Emily, a second-year student at Newcastle University.

The following months will be challenging for students, and that’s before they have to find a lecture hall they’ve never visited, let alone heard of. But change, when handled right, can be an opportunity for growth. Pre-pandemic, universities were a breeding ground for isolation and loneliness, with students having to wait for months for counselling and mental health support. By finally listening to the acute needs of their students this year, universities can begin to put wellbeing at the heart of their institutions. The new normal doesn’t have to be so bad.

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