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How Universities are Supporting Students During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Mark Barrow, President of Bangor University’s Students’ Union

@Whatuni spoke with Mark Barrow, President of @BangorUni’s Students’ Union, to find out how they’re supporting students during the #Coronavirus pandemic… 

The Coronavirus pandemic – or COVID-19 – has profoundly changed the lives of university students across the UK. Education has moved from the physical to the virtual classroom as universities move online to support their students’ studies; exams have been postponed or cancelled; and social spaces where students go to relax and meet new people have closed their doors.

For many it’s been a very stressful couple of months, with lots of uncertainty and fears about the impacts of it on students’ health, current education, and future career.

The best resource of advice and support for students has always been the Students’ Union. And in this time of uncertainty and fear, the Students’ Union has been needed more than ever.

Coronavirus Became My Number One Priority…

The Coronavirus pandemic has transformed the nature of my work. As President of Bangor University’s Students’ Union, the Coronavirus naturally became my number one priority quite rapidly.

I have been sitting on Bangor University’s Coronavirus Steering Group since it was set up, around two months ago.  This has given me an interesting insight into how peoples’ perceptions and fears have developed over this time.

Originally, the Steering Group was founded in order to monitor the situation at the campus that Bangor University has in China (Bangor College China) and respond to the concerns of Chinese students studying here in Bangor. 

Thereafter, the group’s focus progressed in tandem with the development of Coronavirus. We began to publicly respond to incidents of racial harassment and to support Bangor University students who were studying abroad.

Then, seemingly overnight, the focus was shifted much closer to home, following the spread of the virus within the UK. Within a few days, I was involved in Bangor University’s decision to move all its teaching online (as quickly became the norm across the sector), which was quickly followed by guidance for people to work from home, where possible.

My work now consists of safeguarding students’ education and welfare – all from my bedroom. In terms of my location (north west Wales), there haven’t been very many confirmed cases of people having contracted the virus. However, in many ways, I don’t think this makes too much difference.

People here (the majority of whom are students) are still anxious and worried. Understandably, it has led to them having many questions which we are slowly trying to answer – will I still graduate? Do I still have to pay my tuition fees? What happens to my exams? And so on.

The scale of the pandemic still hasn’t quite sunk in. It feels surreal that this can still happen in the year 2020. The consequences of Coronavirus are, to some extent, more concerning and worrying than the virus itself…. not being able to buy basic food in the supermarket; seeing public transport services being continuously reduced; being told that you can’t go to the pub or the gym – nobody would have thought that we’d live through such occurrences during our lifetimes.  I share the same concerns everybody else has, such as around not being able to see family members.

Although no longer a student, I’ve seen first-hand the concerns that students have regarding exams. I think it is the uncertainty which is most concerning – the uncertainty of not knowing whether they can graduate, and whether they can progress to a Postgraduate degree and future employment or not.

Universities Need to Utilise Technology

Supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing during the Coronavirus pandemic is one of my top priorities. Naturally, students will be anxious, stressed and worried. I think universities have a role to play in ensuring students can still access mental health support, through online methods. Students will start to feel isolated and ‘cut-off’, which is why universities need to utilise technologies that can ensure continued communication between peers.

This includes having webinar-style classes and activating the ‘chat’ function on various pieces of software. In terms of my personal work, I will be keeping in contact with colleagues through virtual software such as Microsoft Teams. This will hopefully help me feel part of a community, rather than being isolated.

I have been involved in decisions that Bangor University has made, and I continue to work with them in ensuring that the university continues to support its students and keep them informed. Bangor University has a history of working closely with the Students’ Union, so I’ve had no issue in them being receptive to my advice.

For example, I advised that they didn’t introduce online teaching immediately, but had a ‘preparation week’ beforehand, for academics to prepare online material, and for students to understand what it all means. Senior University staff understood the benefits of doing this.

I have subsequently worked with the University to ensure there is regular communication with students, as decisions are being made. In relation to this, I advised the University to have a live FAQ page, which is continuously being updated.

If you are a student studying at Bangor University, your Students’ Union is still there for you, with links to updates and answers to any questions you might have about Bangor’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Barrow, President of Bangor University’s Students’ Union

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