University students have lost the wider experience due to the pandemic
Someone once defined education as “a conversation with the future”. It is a great line.
University students are, of course, a major part of that conversation. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. It is what makes universities such exciting places, and so valuable to the cities they are located in.
There is no question that the Covid-19 pandemic has been really tough for students. That matters not just because they are students, but because they are that conversation with the future. They are the doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and engineers joining the workforce that will see us out of the pandemic and the generation that will lead our region and the nation’s economic and social recovery in the years to come.
The pandemic has had an impact on students at both of Sheffield’s universities, and it is something we both know all too well as the two vice-chancellors. Despite the outstanding efforts of our staff to teach our students in new and innovative ways online, and to provide students with the practical and emotional support they need, they have lost parts of the wider experience of going to university due to lockdown restrictions - the sporting, social, cultural, and community engagement through which they learnt vital skills.
Many have lost the part-time jobs which supplement student loans – sometimes vital in making study possible. The government’s decision to direct universities to teach the majority of students online has meant that many students across the country are paying rent for accommodation which they cannot use. The University of Sheffield is not charging rent to students who are unable to make use of their University owned or managed accommodation due to the government’s lockdown restrictions. Hallam does not own its own accommodation, but has been working with accommodation partners, encouraging them to offer refunds and rebates. We are pleased that a number have done so.
Both universities have also responded by expanding their support for hardship and student learning – jointly committing over £7million of pounds to support students facing financial challenges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to financial support, we have provided laptops and essential technology for those suffering digital hardship and have put in place comprehensive packages of support for students who need to self-isolate.
We welcome the government’s recent increased commitment to supporting students – £50m was allocated nationally just a few weeks ago – but spread across the nation’s two million students it just does not go far enough.
Our students’ mental health and wellbeing is as big a concern as their finances. The impact of isolation on mental health is well-known, and serious in both the short and long term. In both universities, all of our support services have been available to students throughout the pandemic, both online and over the phone, including counselling, wellbeing, mental health support, and inclusive support. Online mental health workshops are also running until the end of March in collaboration with Mind, the leading mental health charity as part of the Mentally-Healthy Universities programme.
We know that the challenges of mental health are not limited to students in university or private accommodation: it’s a challenge for students living at home too. For some people home is not a safe, comfortable or supportive place - even in the midst of a pandemic.
Others feel better when they are around their peers.
After an exceptionally difficult year, we also know that students will be graduating into a really tough labour market. At Sheffield Hallam, we have just launched a wide-ranging programme of support for the students who are due to graduate this year – we are working closely with local and national employers to provide support and, where we can, internships to help our students. At the University of Sheffield, we are providing a programme of advice and employability skills webinars, online events with employers and opportunities to meet and learn about specific careers from our successful alumni.
Despite the challenges, we are proud that so many of our students continue to contribute positively to the city and the wider region through initiatives to support healthcare staff and the community, volunteering and fundraising activities. While we recognise that there have been a small number of incidents that are clearly unacceptable, we are grateful to the vast majority of our students who have been following Covid-19 guidelines to protect themselves, others and the wider community.
The pandemic, of course, has been tough on everyone. There are serious challenges for society that, as leaders of anchor institutions in the city, we are both determined to respond to. However, we are especially concerned about our students - our conversation with the future. We have shifted resources to support our students, both UK and international, in imaginative ways – helping them to study, to manage everyday lives, to get the fast-track help they need.
We are grateful for the support we’ve had to date, but the government needs to provide a much more substantial package of help. It is vital that we invest in this generation and the future that we will rely on them to deliver.