Are UK universities exploiting students mental health over coronavirus?

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Do you constantly fear for the future or even the present? Mental health illnesses are on the rise since the pandemic began, especially within various higher educational institutions. Journalist Skye Stewart investigates how coronavirus has impacted student’s mental health status and explores the importance of getting help. 

THE FUNDAMENTAL flaws within our UK universities have been exacerbated by coronavirus. With the main focus geared towards course content, rather than student satisfaction, these flaws continually contribute to the student mental health crisis. 

UCAS data suggests a record 570,475 people were accepted through UCAS to start an undergraduate course in the 2020 cycle. According to England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People Survey, probable mental disorders have increased within the 17 to 22 age brackets (27.2% for young women and 13.3% for young men). Additionally, 59.0% of 17- to 22-year-olds claim lockdown has made their life worse. 

William Osborn, 21, first year physiotherapy student at University of Winchester said: “I think expecting students to deal with stress in a pandemic isn’t helpful or realistic towards our wellbeing. It feels like there’s not a real understanding of the stress that we have as students. I restarted first year again and I’ve realised that you don’t get to interact with others as much as before. 

“The university sends us emails about mental health, but I don’t believe it’s really helping the majority of students. Only if you’re really desperate you’d consider that service. Most people just try to manage their own stress, even though it’s overwhelming. 

“Since lockdown, I’ve gotten involved with online gambling. University fees and accommodation remain the same price, even though learning happens mostly remotely. Us students are being robbed of our dignity and finances, just to flaunt a prestigious qualification. 

“Some lecturers have attempted to introduce measures to reduce our stress load; such as two-week extensions on coursework – which has help slightly. However, there’s still ongoing stress as we’re bombarded with heavy workloads and placements.” 

Photo: William Osborn

Sonia Mendes, 43, mother and pharmacist said: “I think the way the school system is going about young adults’ education is shocking. We’re in a pandemic, this is when they need the most support. 

“My daughter is currently in second year and studies law; all her lessons have been moved online and because of this, she feels like she isn’t supported the same way as the previous year. Going to university is hard enough, but combining that with skyrocketing cortisol levels is screaming disaster. 

“When I went to university, I was able to freely talk to my tutors and arrange group sessions with my university mates. Although it’s understandable that because we’re in a pandemic, students cannot freely do everything for safety reasons. I do believe the lecturers owe it to their students to put in more effort as they’re paying over £9,000 a year. 

“I’m happy that my daughter still wants to continue university, despite the pandemic, but I do think she needs to monitor her stress and seek help if she ever needs it. It’s super important to look after your mental health but everyone, especially students, turn a blind eye to it.” 

Gemma, a senior academic at the University of Birmingham told newspaper The Guardian: “One student wrote to me saying, ‘I’m getting tested for Covid but I’m also starting to take medication for depression and who do I talk to?’ I feel out of my depth. I’m working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week dealing with this. I was just sobbing the other night on the couch, just feeling like this is not sustainable.” 

Many people are starting to acknowledge the term ‘mental health’, due to the ongoing emergence of various mental health conditions being flagged up during Covid-19. It is important to seek help, to successfully cope with mental illness, before it worsens or affects other areas of life. 

Aliyah Rose McFarlane, 20, graphic designer said: “I chose to not go to university right now and I don’t regret it. A lot of people here in the UK are complaining about how universities are constantly failing to support them. 

“I work from home at the moment, but I love what I do. I would only consider attending university once the educational system realises the importance of their pupils experience, rather than only viewing them as customers.” 

Photo: Aliyah McFarlane

Esther Ekundayo, 21, an international student from the UK who is now studying psychology at Colombia College, Carolina, USA said: “I’m really happy that I decided to become an international student. I’m constantly exposed to a new culture, friends, opportunities and get assistance with my work. 

“I came to America on a sports scholarship and love that I get to study and train for the things I’m passionate about. I work part time, which is hard to balance at times, but I’m pleased overall with my university experience. 

“There’s procedures put in place for Coronavirus, but it doesn’t really affect the content of the work or the teaching element, unlike my friends back in the UK.” 

 Photo: Esther Ekundayo

 Exercise has the ability to alleviate anxiety, depression and social withdrawal, whilst improving cognitive function. Many students were previously encouraged by universities to participate in societies, however since the emergence of the pandemic, students have remained more sedentary and isolated. 

Ajibola Taiwo, 21, final year sport and exercise science student at Coventry University said: “My university experience has had its ups and downs. The education has been quite difficult. But the social aspect in first and second year was when I experienced ‘uni life’. 

“As a practical course, there’s been a noticeable impact to my learning because in first year I’ve done a lot of practical, which allowed us to experience the techniques you’d need when working. This year however, the ongoing blur within government guidelines has restricted that, which is stressful. 

“My mental health has shifted. Normally I am reserved, however with the pandemic, I’ve found that I’m not doing anything at all. I might message a few friends, but I’m not really eager to see them anymore. The same routines really get to you. 

“The online experience is not the best because you’re in the same environment that you live in and have entertainment in. Lessons aren’t the same as the in-person experience and I find that the that work is harder to comprehend. 

“The main concern is that we’re still expected to do the same quantity of work as previous years within the same timeframe. I feel that this should’ve been considered more effectively as that’s really where mental health all stems from, especially during a pandemic.”


 Photo: Ajibola Taiwo

The universities watchdog’s annual report shows that in 2020 it received 10% more complaints in 2020, compared to 2019. With 43% of students concerned by the facilities, teaching time and academic supervision, alongside disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Figures reported only 29% back in 2019. As a result, a sum of £742,132 was paid to students as compensation. 

With many having to cope with student overdrafts, family problems and the rise of reoccurring illnesses, it is not surprising that mental health issues amongst students have risen during these unprecedented times. 

Feature photo : a woman studying online

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