Supporting student mental health at university during Covid-19: A panel discussion from The Guardian

By Molly Hobbs,  Student Support Coordinator, TPT  

On the 11th November 2020, The Guardian hosted a panel discussion around the topic of student mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, and what support is available to students. Speakers drew attention to key challenges and areas where students require dedicated support, as well as how Covid-19 is creating a time of reflection and change.

Throughout the discussion, the panellists considered the assumption that growing up in an online, digitally connected world should make it easy for students to adapt to blended learning. This is often not the case – having an online social life is very different to learning online. Online engagement has also been a choice up until now – during lockdown this has felt like the only option, for all areas of student life, forcing students to quickly learn and use new systems.

The panel also contested that students today are already equipped for online learning. Digital poverty has been a challenge for many universities, leading to some organising funding and grants to get the students the laptop or other equipment they need to continue their learning remotely.

Not only that, there are fears around connectivity that university funding cannot address – students living in home environments that do not support their learning (cramped, noisy spaces shared with multiple family members) or their local area not providing sufficient broadband connection.

The final message was for universities, urging them to think ahead – not only will there be implications of travelling home for Christmas, but what happens when students get home? What are some of the many reasons why students may not want to or be able to go home, and what happens if those that do, don’t want to come back in January?

The theme that stood out most, was recognition that for learning of any kind to be effective and non-discriminatory, it must be inclusive by design. Compatibility with assistive technology must be considered, as well as support for various communities of students who are most vulnerable to becoming disengaged and dropping out, including those with vision impairment.

Providers now have a new source of pressure to make learning accessible to all who want to learn. This is a key time to highlight issues and push for positive change on challenges that students with vision impairment have faced for years.

One panellist reflected:

‘…this is forcing us not just to adapt and update, but totally re-think education – its purpose, how it should be measured, what the most meaningful components for students are, and how we can deliver that for everyone.’

The event was attended by nearly 200 students, family members and professionals. The high-profile panel was broad in range, including: Kate Lister from the mostly-virtual Open University; Steven West from the more traditional brick-and-mortar University of the West of England; the vice-president of the National Union for Students, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio; Michelle Morgan, Higher Education consultant for student experience; and Richard Henderson, representing Lenovo.

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