Covid-19 is having a huge impact on every aspect of higher education and university life. It has put a strain on our resources, is testing the creativity of staff, has made the future a good deal less certain and threatens the health and wellbeing of both staff and students.
For many students, the lockdown has had a devastating effect on morale as well as, for many, academic performance, mental health and career plans.
A recent NUS survey of nearly 10,000 students revealed how anxious students are. Three quarters are concerned about how the pandemic will affect their final qualification and most are worried about their health and finances.
So how can we better support our students?
Most universities are now delivering lectures, seminars and assessments online. For example, here at LIBF we offer interactive seminars and discussion forums, and staff are available to provide academic and library support to students. Some universities are extending deadlines for assignments, or have cancelled exams. Some are even offering automatic progression to the next year of study.
But it’s no good having these things available if students can’t access support or are feeling isolated and alone. It’s not enough to signpost updates and extra resources from your website and send email alerts. The communication has to be two-way.
One way to get useful feedback is to set up a virtual meeting with your Student Staff Liaison Committee. We’ve found this invaluable, both in guiding our support and reassuring us that the measures we’ve already put in place are working. Coincidently we found a higher participation rate with our online meeting than in our previous face-to-face meetings.
The lesson is, you can use webinars for more than just teaching.
A regular timetable of webinars adds structure to the lockdown working week and enables you to continue the add-on services students need – such as library support and careers services. Webinars give students a chance to ask questions and raise concerns informally – in the same way that they might usually do on campus.
By offering many of our usual services online we're not just supporting our students in a practical way, but also giving them an important sense of business as usual.
Support with health and mental wellbeing is essential. A ‘no detriment’ statement will reassure students that you’re still committed to providing a safety net. But while some students will need additional help and one-to-one sessions, all students need guidance on managing their mental health in a time of crisis.
Alleviating some of their anxiety is an obvious win too. You might opt to be more flexible about the way you deal with special consideration applications and look at increasing financial support.
The NUS survey revealed that 95% of UK students are worried about the wider economy and 81% about their job prospects. Hardly surprising. University career services need to provide online services that mirror their usual offering, but also be creative about what else they can do to help. We’re offering virtual internships which provide employers with some short-term remote help at a time when they may have limited resources and provides students opportunities to get experience whilst working from home. That’s surely a win-win situation.
Of course, we must also cater for prospective students. Open days can be replaced by virtual tours of a campus and webinars for offer-holders, complete with Q&A sessions. Why not include an opportunity for parents to find out more and ask their questions? Back up your outreach with telephone calls to ensure all prospective students hear from you – including those who don’t have internet access.
Our sector is still finding its way and adapting. We must keep going, share ideas on what works and innovate new ways to help our students and graduates, so that we can all look to the future with renewed optimism.
Hema Tank is Associate Dean at The London Institute of Banking & Finance