‘I still feel like an outsider’: one year on, students reveal impact of COVID-19 pandemic

Gyllyngvase beach, Falmouth | Jay Farrar

It has been one year since university students across the UK were told to make plans to return home due to COVID-19, which had then recently been declared a pandemic.

Lars Mucklejohn spoke to students about their experiences over the past year, how their mental health has been affected by the pandemic, and their opinions on university and government policy.

“societies contacted us to get us to sign up and then we hear about one meet and never hear anything again”

The first-year University of Exeter students interviewed were disappointed by the government’s response to the pandemic in general and, in particular, its handling of A-levels last summer.

One student said: “I had been robbed of all my hard work from A-levels by the government, who decided my future via a computer algorithm and arguably altered my life altogether.”

This student also found some positivity in lockdown: “I enjoyed spending time going out on long bike rides and exploring areas around where I live, but for me, that was the only positive of lockdown.” However, he caught COVID-19 in March last year, remarking how “that really damaged my ability to go on these long bike rides and generally keep up my fitness”.

He argued that “the government could have done so much more for people who are recovering from COVID. It’s understandable that there are bigger fish to fry, but the effect it has on you long term is so badly misunderstood.”

With regards to university life, he said: “Barely any virtual events have been set up.” He lamented that “societies contacted us to get us to sign up and then we hear about one meet and never hear anything again”, observing “a general lack of effort to improve the social side of university”.

We’re receiving PowerPoint degrees at a full nine-grand rate

Another first-year Exeter student said that she would remember this period “as some of the most confusing and uncertain years in my life”.

Her introduction to university life was intense: “The first weekend of uni was before restrictions were put back in place, so naturally, everyone ran to Gylly and attempted to panic make friends as quickly as they could. ‘What course are you on?’ quickly escalated to ‘Let’s hang out’ before you even got to know the person’s name!”

She felt disconnected from both students and staff: “Virtual events and meetings were not engaging and made us feel totally torn from society”, she described, “I still feel like an outsider to the uni”.

Regarding student support, she said: “Wellbeing has been nothing but helpful—they’re an incredible group who, in my experience, have done everything they can. I feel like some first years still don’t know where to get this support and are intimidated by the words ‘counselling’, ‘wellbeing’, et cetera.” She added: “While the mentor scheme on my course is a great idea, people aren’t really jumping at the opportunity. I think this is down to lack of motivation and engagement in the courses.”

She sympathised with the university: “In my experience, the uni has tried with inclusion and attempting to make us feel like a community. However, the spirit isn’t really there. Long emails don’t hit the spot, and calls with random people, no matter how helpful, just feel like a labyrinth. There’s not much the university can do really, with restrictions and all.”

She had strong words for the government: “What the hell! I feel like we’ve pushed to the side. Most COVID briefings don’t lend a word to us. We’re receiving PowerPoint degrees at a full nine-grand rate. This doesn’t feel like what I’m paying for, and everyone knows this.” She added that the media and government often unfairly “point fingers” at students for spreading the virus: “The majority of people I know on campus are being mature and responsible.”

She summarised: “I’m grateful for my lecturers as they’ve been trying their hardest working from home, but this isn’t what I signed up for. Frankly, I’m devastated with how this year has played out.”

“I feel like there’s double standards, with lecturers being given more time and being more understood than students”

One third-year international Falmouth University student described how he has stayed in Falmouth since the pandemic began, except for Christmas, when he visited his family.

“Not going to lie, I really enjoyed some parts of the pandemic, such as not having to commute and not feeling pressure to socialise or go out—I really felt like I had some time for myself”, he explained.

Despite this, he did not enjoy university during the first lockdown: “Library closure really affected my ability to complete assignments, and I felt stressed whenever I thought about completing assignments.”

Although he enjoyed having time to himself, he missed his friends: “After a while, it was boring to only see my then boyfriend, and I was looking forward to seeing somebody else.” Even when his friends returned to Cornwall, restrictions meant that they were not able to do much together. 

This student argued that “the whole government should resign”, and “due to their incompetence we’re still in lockdown, and this is ridiculous—we have examples of other countries that could control the situation and not risk so many lives”.

As for the university, he said that “I think they should be more understanding to students and their circumstances. Especially when it comes to students with mental health issues/learning difficulties/disabilities.” He described how students are unfairly expected to do as much as before. “I feel like there’s double standards, with lecturers being given more time and being more understood than students”, he added.

He identified a lack of preparation for this academic year, saying that “everyone knew that we were going to have a massive spike in winter, and they were surprised and had no policies in place for ‘no detriment’ or rent.” With regards to the challenges faced by international students, he described how “all I got from the student services was copied and pasted emails advising against returning to the UK, despite myself seeking help due to mental health and an unhealthy home environment”.

According to a survey done by the National Union of Students, over half of students said that their mental health had suffered because of the pandemic. Another survey by Save the Student found that nearly half of students worried about loneliness, and nearly two thirds said that the pandemic had impacted their mental health, with 94% having their lives generally affected by COVID-19.

Wellbeing support is available for students at Falmouth and Exeter. The Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union has launched the #SUTogetherWherever campaign to support students’ mental health during lockdown.

In response to this article, a University of Exeter spokesperson told the Anchor: “We recognise and understand this has been a very challenging time for our University community, including our students. We have invested millions of pounds in transforming education programmes and put in place enhanced and increased welfare and wellbeing services so that students can access the teaching, guidance and support they need to ensure the best possible quality of education during the global pandemic. 

“While we of course understand that face-to-face teaching for most students is preferable, we also have to follow and adhere to Government guidelines and protocols to ensure the health and safety of everyone at the University, and wider community.  

“This year, the University adopted a blended approach to learning, which included redesigning all of our modules to include high-quality online teaching alongside specially-created digital resources, to ensure students can study, progress and graduate. The University has also committed to a ‘no-disadvantage guarantee’ to ensure no student is disadvantaged with their overall marks as a result of the many impacts of the pandemic. 

“We have also invested significantly in our Wellbeing service to ensure they meet the very different challenges faced by students during the pandemic. These include a number of innovative new services being developed, evolved and implemented to meet the changing landscape of student requirements. The University also works closely with the Students’ Guild and Students’ Union, in support of the Get Connected and Together Wherever campaigns. We also regularly communicate with students through a range of emails, social media and direct contact when necessary.”

On behalf of the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union, SU President Student Experience Amelia Banton said: “This has been such a difficult year for everyone, but I’ve been so amazed at the quality and range of online events student groups have produced. I know lots of new students have been reticent about joining online events but they are a great way to meet people with similar interests to you. It’s never too late to join a group and I’d really encourage students to do this. As well as this, we have also been running a variety of online events for students to get involved with. Charlotte (president welfare & inclusivity) is still running her Together Wherever campaign page as a hub for useful information at this time. We will shortly be publishing to groups what a return to in-person activity will look like for the rest of the year and I am so excited for students to be able to attend events in person once again.”

Falmouth University did not provide a comment when contacted by the Anchor.