Impact of COVID-19 for university students
While Europe is facing the outbreak of COVID-19, universities are crucially affected at their core: the students. For them, the period is undoubtedly very stressful: classes are moved online, semesters abroad are postponed, examinations and how they are conducted remain uncertain. As universities have gone virtual within a matter of days, how has this affected students?
In order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the highly lively and international environments that universities are, most of The Guild’s member institutions have now completely shut their premises. Yet, the studies must go on. Our universities have rapidly switched to online teaching, a change requiring a lot of adaptation from tutors and students but carried out with remarkable success. In fact, the extraordinary situation has even triggered rapid development of new courses: at the University of Oslo, the Faculty of Social Sciences set up new online lectures on “The World With Viruses”, while the Centre for Development and the Environment developed a podcast addressing the social consequences of the pandemic.
The move to online learning has affected not just lectures and seminars. University libraries have worked hard to put in place extra online study support. Where access to libraries is still possible, they have been made as safe as possible for borrowers: The University of Tartu developed a system of contact-free borrowing via smart lockers available in the library’s lobby.
Clearly, online learning also affects examinations, as universities are working hard on putting in place viable alternatives to on-site exams. This has raised many issues about how to ensure that different assessment methods can be introduced in ways that assesses students fairly, without detriment to their performance. Universities have tried to embrace these changes as quickly as they could, without sacrificing quality and fairness for speed of implementation. For doctoral candidates, thesis defenses have moved online, and newly-minted holders of a doctorate are finding creative ways to celebrate the achievement, like this University of Glasgow’s doctor.
For the exchange students, the situation is particularly challenging: they may find themselves lonely or helpless in foreign countries, without mentioning the financial and administrative uncertainties regarding the continuation of their studies and scholarships. Universities have done all they can to bring their students back from abroad, and many have also supported students financially. The Guild has also been active feeding back to the Commission how it can help universities to be as flexible and helpful to the students as they can within the context of the Erasmus+ programme.
For students living in university accommodation, physical distancing might be difficult to respect. In that regard, universities have different policies depending on the type of student residence. At Ghent University, for instance, dormitories where social distancing was impossible to keep were closed for the safety of their dwellers. Universities have also quickly adapted and enhanced their welfare support. At King’s College London, the Sport Team has decided to offer free online classes for students. And as the current situation might also impact the wellbeing of students, the University of Ljubljana has developed a project aimed at providing support to students.
While The Guild’s universities are doing their best to adapt to the new conditions, they also bring up opportunities to reflect on educational practices – particularly with regard to technology. “We developed interesting skills here. We didn’t realise this is possible,” explained Antonino Rotolo, Vice-Rector for research at the University of Bologna. But as these skills develop, universities need to manage uncertainty. In response, universities have established multiple communication channels to respond to students’ concerns and give regular updates. The University of Groningen, for instance, has established a Q&A podcast with Rector Cisca Wijmenga, while the University of Warwick sends out twice-weekly communications to staff and students to update on progress, supporting the community through dedicated wellbeing information and online meetings.