The events of 2020 have, to varying degrees, turned all our lives upside down. For students, it has been a rollercoaster. They have had anything but a normal year, starting from when they were sent home from university in the middle of March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, through to a return to campus in September and the machinations of returning home for Christmas in a ‘travel window.’
The pandemic has made the university experience different and challenging, with students and staff adapting to COVID-secure measures to ensure face to face teaching could still take place while also navigating increased online learning.
During the first national lockdown in March all our University activities transformed into virtual delivery overnight. It was unimaginable at the time that lockdown would remain in place for so many months, and then when the restrictions on our daily lives started to be relaxed, that we would shortly have them tightened again.
At times, for both students and staff, it has all been bewildering and exhausting but it has not all been bleak.
There is one aspect that has shone through these darkest of days. The individual and collective effort of every member of staff at Staffordshire University has been astounding.
We have achieved so much this year, in the most demanding of circumstances, and this has been achieved in good spirits, humour and an upmost focus upon looking after our students and each other.
With the Centre of Mental Health predicting that around 10 million people will develop long-lasting mental health problems as a result of the pandemic, universities need to do all they can to provide students with a stable working environment. Especially with COVID-19 leaving many students feeling anxious and uncertain about the future ahead of them, it is more important than ever that universities play a key role in ensuring young people keep their mental health intact.
At Staffordshire University we have always taken safeguarding our students’ mental health very seriously, and as we know COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact we have put extra wellbeing measures in place.
For example, we have incorporated ten voluntary Student Wellbeing Peer Mentors within our Student Wellbeing team. These mentors have been providing encouragement for students to access societies, professional mentors, sports activities, as well as setting up a cafe service throughout the year so students can get together and build a sense of common belonging.
As the long-term impact of the pandemic starts to show, one thing that is abundantly clear is that our younger generation, or ‘generation COVID’ as they have become known, are the individuals who are being hit the hardest.
New research uncovered by the BBC highlights how people aged 16-25 are twice as likely as older workers to have lost their job, while six in 10 young people have seen their earnings fall since the start of the pandemic. Therefore, keeping young people in education is more important than ever to future proof their career prospects.
Universities have a duty to protect their students and prepare them for the world that should be their oyster and as long as a university remains a COVID-secure space there is no reason to close them.
Whilst universities need to remain open and accessible, it is important that higher education institutions consider the blended learning models they can implement.
Staffordshire University is implementing innovative solutions to ensure this is the case with the School of Law, Policing and Forensics building a virtual crime scene house so students can keep undertaking fieldwork. Yet this is not enough, and we need to continue to provide students with support through in-person learning where possible.
The geography team generated an extensive virtual field course to the Scottish Highlands, to enable students to visualise and understand key sites and enable debates that they would have had. A student said, ‘previously I had been concerned I would struggle to visualise sites and fully explain concepts, however after following the virtual field course, I am no longer worried and feel fully prepared to complete the assessment’.
Now that we know the cycle of lockdowns could potentially continue, we need to ensure we are giving students the best possible chance at learning the skills integral for future career opportunities. We were the first university in the country providing undergraduate cyber security and esports degrees and are teaching students lessons which will make them stand out in the jobs market.
We must not forget that despite all the upheaval created by lockdown and tiering systems, the majority of young people in education have been carrying on with their work.
Universities need the support of Government to keep calm and carry on, to ensure we are able to continue to support students and provide them with the opportunities and resources to future proof the rest of their lives.
Professor Liz Barnes CBE DL is the Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive at Staffordshire University