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The wider student experience and supporting community in lockdown

  • 20 May 2020
  • By Bethan Cornell

In this blog, Bethan Cornell, a Physics PhD Student at King’s College London who is undertaking an internship at HEPI, explores some of the best practice by universities in continuing to deliver the wider student experience under lockdown.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, institutions have rapidly moved away from campus and gone online. Naturally, there has been tremendous focus on virtual learning and giving students the best possible educational experience. Indeed, various previous HEPI blogs have discussed issues on scaling up online learning rapidly, reviewing the literature around online learning and previous lessons learned in shifting to online teaching. Given that the primary focus of higher education is to educate, this is a natural first place to focus.

However, we must remember that students gain much from other aspects of university life and this has also been curtailed in the pandemic. Universities are communities, both educationally and socially. The vast majority of students will make rich personal relationships with others during their higher education experience, both in the classroom and via extra-curricular activities, such as participating in societies and playing sport. Not only do these experiences positively impact students’ wellbeing, but engaging with life outside of studies also brings them a wealth of transferrable skills and personal development which contribute to their future success, complementing their academic education. This is something students themselves are acutely aware of. For example, HEPI and Unite Student’s New Realists report in 2019 found that students believe ‘peers play a pivotal role in a successful student experience’. If we want our students to succeed academically during this challenging time, then we must support their all-round higher education experience.

Many universities and their students’ unions have already brilliantly stepped up to the plate for their communities. The purpose of this blog is to showcase examples of good practice and inspire interested policymakers across the sector to be equally innovative in reaching out to their student bodies.

Sport

Sports teams and exercise communities are central to many students’ social experiences whilst at university. Staying active is important during isolation for good physical and mental wellbeing and the following institutions have promoted this message along with a sense of continued belonging for their members.

The University of Bristol Sport has a Strava club. Strava is a sports tracking app, which logs users runs, walks and cycles and can share them with groups of friends. At Bristol, there is a supportive community of 511 Strava users who share information about their exercise and encourage each other on social media via the #WeAreBristol hashtag.

Loughborough University sport are keeping their students motivated by setting lockdown challenges, including everything from garden sport using toilet rolls to designing a new Loughborough sports shirt. The community is encouraged to share their efforts, along with memories of university sport, on Instagram.

The University of Glasgow have provided a supportive environment to help students make the most of their daily exercise. They have designed a comprehensive desk to 3K programme to encourage members of their community to take up running. They even include an ‘ask a trainer’ section on the website to provide those who need it personalised extra support.

Students’ Unions

Students’ unions are central to the social life and support network of many students at university. Across the country, lots of unions have reached out online, setting up Coronavirus communities on Facebook. Some examples include, but are not limited to, Nottingham Trent, Oxford Brookes, Lancaster University and The University of Bath. Leeds University Union has taken this one step further by creating a completely Virtual Union.

For those missing more specific and lively social events, there are plenty of good examples. Most unions are organising quiz nights and chances to catch up, but Sheffield Students’ Union have gone the extra mile by hosting club nights from your living room. In a similar vein, Coventry University are holding online party games nights.

Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union have been very active promoting opportunities for their students to volunteer during the crisis, which complements their ‘isolation not isolated’ campaign. Furthermore, Cardiff University Students’ Union are engaging actively with their community through a series of blog posts.

Chaplaincy

Many students find a strong sense of belonging through faith communities in higher education. At the University of Sheffield, the multi-faith chaplaincy has committed to being open every day through the pandemic, offering pastoral support to any student that needs it. At Oxford Brookes, the chaplaincy is running a full timetable for its community, including ‘craftenoon tea’ sessions and guided meditation.

Wellbeing

Complementary to community events, supporting students’ wellbeing is vital during this difficult time. Many students, not limited to those with pre-existing conditions, will be finding the current change and disruption very tough and most institutions are doing their best to move support services online. The University of Exeter has an excellent example of a strong and supportive wellbeing service. They have made numerous resources easily accessible to their students, including wellbeing webinars, ‘Mind over Natter’ interviews, e-books and worksheets.

Of course, wellbeing is not just clinical and there are many other ways in which communities can link together to provide their members with moral support. For example, the University of Bradford is planning an online book club through its wellbeing service.

These University communities showcase the range of helpful support possible for students. If we all take note and similarly promote the full higher education experience during the pandemic, then not only will students’ wellbeing be positively affected but they will continue to engage with their institutions and return as active learners and active community members.

2 comments

  1. Cath Brown says:

    I know I may seem like a broken record… but why not come to the university and the SU with the track record for virtual community, because it’s business as usual?

  2. albert wright says:

    Good to hear “good news” from the sector.

    I agree the physical experience of University life on campus makes a major contribution to the education and personal development of individual students but we are not getting a decent enough return on the investment being made.

    I believe the annual intake of undergraduates on residential University courses should be limited to around 250,000 from August 2025 and for post graduates to 75,000. Such an arrangement could be handled by fewer than 100 institutions.

    In addition, all other financially viable existing University should be converted to “Regional Day Universities” and cover areas accessible by public transport in under an hour.

    All Universities should be encouraged to develop on line learning degree programmes.

    In this way the UK could create a more appropriate Higher Education sector.

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