It’s a common practice to distinguish the life cycles of students based on their enrolment by academic year or years. These year-numbers help us to navigate and plan. Due to the COVID-19, the year 2020, however, is not defined by its four different numbers but by something from the past year. For the world, and especially for students, this COVID-19 year has been an exceptionally challenging one.
In general, we were not ready to function according to the rules of the pandemic. That was also true for our universities. In mid-March, when European countries took confinement actions, the vast majority of universities implemented emergency distance learning measures within a day or two. Students in European suniversities woke up to a completely new reality. Students learned that there was no certainty about how the 2020 autumn semester would look and about what their exams would be. Even today, in autumn of 2020, the situation changes nearly every week and sometimes, in a few days.
International students were faced with restrictions on travelling home. They lost student jobs. Their landlords, in many cases, kicked them out. Nobody knew if they would be able to pass online exams if they were lucky enough to get repatriation flights back home.
Graduating students were informed that there would not be graduation ceremonies. There were no supportive policies to help students secure their Grade Point Average (GPA) as the quality of their research and thesis work might be affected by the confinement and other restrictions. Less interactive (or not interactive at all) learning experiences, the absence of user-friendly digital learning platforms, not digitally equipped lecturers, teachers and students, lack of mental health and other support services, and sometimes disturbing and disruptive home environments. Uncertainty and instability became a part of student life.
On 20 April, the European Students’ Union, together with the Institute of Development of Education in Croatia, launched a survey to analyse student life during the COVID19 pandemic. Though participation in the survey was only open for 10 days, it gathered more than 17.000 responses from European countries. A brief look at the findings helps us understand the situation.
More than 50% of our respondents indicated having a larger workload than before on-site classes were cancelled. 65.7% agreed with a statement that it is difficult for them to focus during online teaching in comparison with on-site classes.
Only 21.6% of all respondents indicated that they have managed to have a student job. Some have lost the one that they had and others have been unable to obtain a job. 36% of the respondents said they were worried about covering their living expenses. 42% of students mentioned being worried about how to balance care responsibilities with their studies.
73.3% of the respondents reported feeling tired, worn out and exhausted. In parallel, 58.6% of them reported being bothered by nerves/nervousness.
Almost 24% of the respondents indicated that they have access problems with good internet connections. 28.8% reported not being satisfied with how their practical classes were organised and 26.1% of the students reported being dissatisfied with the organisation of lectures as well.
Nevertheless, in addition to these worrying results, we also see that students are hopeful for and committed to better opportunities and brighter futures. 64.1% of the students were convinced that even if the work is hard, they can learn it and 63.1% of them believe that they can manage to do the classwork if they do not give up.
Many universities as well as individual teachers came up with online initiatives to ease the lockdown lives of students. For example, the University of Maastricht (UM) launched a crowdfunding project for supporting UM students in dire financial straits. Cambridge university opened free access to more than 700 textbooks and research publications. Dozens of universities opened parts of their programmes as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
Some institutions managed to work with interactive and student-friendly digital platforms, integrate new tools and approaches to learning and teaching, transform support services and be there when students needed them. Our common responsibility is to make sure all students can benefit from such opportunities.
Overall, the COVID19 response by universities, was an experiment in radical changes in the learning process and an opportunity to understand that they can and should be agile and flexible. This was proof that the long-standing resistance towards integration of digital technologies and rapid transformation to new innovative approaches is groundless. We witnessed the transformative potential of universities around Europe, so let's make sure that when using this potential in the midst of uncertainty, we foster the transformation toward more equitable, inclusive and good quality learning experiences for the students of the COVID-19 year.