By Freya Shaw, Creative Director
The University experience is a highly mythologised one. Through film and TV, to stories from older generations and my old teachers, it is something that is shown to be a key development in adulthood.
Amongst many students, there is a pressure that comes with this. Before I started university at 18, I was told that these would be ‘the best years of my life’. To make the most of it and say yes to any opportunity I had.
But I, along with thousands of others, started this experience in September of 2020. There was no ‘freshers’, there was no welcome fair, and like many others I was locked into halls for a significant proportion of my first term. Limiting my options, and changing university life as it was previously understood. As I enter the final few months of my studies, I reflect upon and investigate the lasting impact of the pandemic on the Covid cohort.
Throughout university, you can still find faded social distancing posters, and information on isolation and the rules that come with it, as a visible representation of the legacy of the pandemic. Although the reality of these anxieties has become background noise as worries shift to the cost of living crisis, the past three years have been defined by the social and academic structures that Covid placed on university life, such as online learning and open book exams.
This is a topic close to my heart. I struggled mentally during my first year and fell behind academically as a result. I found little support and fought in relative silence. Anxieties in my first year clouded my experience, and I have found that there have been traces of these impacting my life still to this day. I wanted to know whether I was alone in this, or whether other students had, and were having similar struggles.
My experience in first year was unique to any other year. Because the University was not prepared for the reality of prolonged online learning, instead of seminars I had word documents to add my thoughts to with my seminar group. As term progressed, next to nobody engaged with the course through the shared document. I felt academically and socially isolated. Even when this changed in the second term, the seminars were impersonal and I sympathised with lecturers who were talking to black screens and whose questions echoed in the void of zoom.
An Epigram poll found that 86 per cent of respondents agreed that Covid negatively impacted their mental health. This was no shock to me as the negative impacts of the pandemic and lockdowns is well documented. Numerous sources, from government research to frequent news reports, collectively describe the shared feelings of loneliness and isolation which arose out of the unprecedented scenario.
Online learning undeniably is the biggest legacy of Covid that is frequently questioned. Many universities are now establishing fully online courses, as the technology to do so is now readily available. There are both pros and cons with this new accessibility. On the one side, some students may benefit from the ability to digest content at their own pace.
However, when interviewed, Epigram found that students who reflected on their time at university found that both fully and partially online learning made them interact significantly less with students on their course. This was particularly the case for humanities students, and led to increased feelings of isolation, and disappointment with their university experience.
One anonymous second year economics and maths student told Epigram: 'All of my lectures for first year were online due to Covid guidelines so it was more difficult to form a schedule for work. Not having a set time and place to attend resulted in a lack of structure throughout the day and meant falling behind on lectures was easier.
'Another consequence of this was that it was harder to find friends on the course, however spending more time in halls did mean that I got to know more people there, so my friendship group consisted more of people from my accommodation and less of people on the same course as me.'
'It’s kind of sad, on graduation day in a few months, I’m going to be surrounded by people I don’t know, and I will never know who they are'
A fourth year Politics and French student, at university prior to March 2020, echoed these concerns and anxieties: 'Because the option to do things online became a reality and easily accessible, people didn't feel the same obligation to engage in the same way as at the beginning of first year'.
The same sentiment was shared by a third year law student. 'People have been very cliquey throughout my time here. When people found their group in first year, they didn't want to venture out of that and found comfort in this. In seminars I found I can be friendly with people but it won't form a friendship. It’s kind of sad, on graduation day in a few months, I’m going to be surrounded by people I don’t know, and I will never know who they are. It’s hard to find that community later in the year.'
People had an ingrained image of what university was supposed to be, and what their relationship with their peers could be. Although things will never turn out the way they were planned exactly, for the Covid cohort, the legacy of continued lockdowns, online learning and increasing distance from academic life has left many students feeling anxious and alone.
This is a culture that seems to be changing. Work is, for the most part, no longer online and all seminars and practical work is face to face. But many subjects still employ a dual use of online and in-person style lectures. With this still in place, the option to engage halfheartedly in only parts of campus life means that students will continue to feel the disconnect between the social and academic parts of university.
This is cemented by further polling done by Epigram which found that 96 per cent of students thought that Covid had a significant impact on attendance to university.
A sociology and philosophy student told Epigram that they felt increased levels of anxiety in their second year, when the possibility of in-person seminars was a reality. They noted that as a result their attendance dipped and they found themselves less likely to socialise after seminars, and contribute to discussions.
Perhaps the lack of normalcy during the first years of university, where there is less intense academic expectation, is credited to this anxiety. Students felt less secure, so were less sure of themselves and their opinions in seminars.
One civil engineering student currently in their third and final year noted that during his time at Bristol he acted as a representative for engineering students in faculty meetings, reflecting on this, he told Epigram that 'There were so many people that had to resit certain modules. The administrative burden was so much that some students did not know whether they were Bristol students or not when term had started due to an intense backlog. Undeniably this led to increased levels of uncertainty amongst the student community'.
'Students who were in first year failed and had to redo one module and then were isolated in their second year of uni due to their year group changing and the need to make new course friends.'
Attendance and acceptance of your status are crucial and fundamental to university life. To have these core values of self and understanding called into question are undeniably critical to a sense of security and being in what is, for many, an individualistic experience. Understandably, this can lead to increased feelings of isolation, and would define not only how students interact with their course, but university as an experience.
Epigram explored these claims further through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the University. In the year starting 2019, 1.3 per cent of the student population retook that year. In the year commencing 2020, this decreased to 0.6 per cent of the population.
This discrepancy may be due to increased leniency given the national gravity of the situation. Extenuating circumstances in 2020 much more accessible, and more readily available than in the years that followed, an issue still of significant contention.
However, this increased in the next two years to levels higher than pre-pandemic. In the year starting 2021, when lockdown was no longer an issue, but the longer term mental health impacts of Covid were still prevalent, 1.8 per cent of the student population was retaking their year. This was 570 out of 31,485 students.
Although the University gave no specific figure for the exact number of students in total, the number of students retaking a year this academic year had increased yet again to 825 students. The rate of students seeking a retake is increasing at a higher proportion to the student population increase.
Although these issues are scarcely discussed as openly as during the pandemic, the legacy of students feeling a disconnect in their university life is clear. Students are continuing to feel isolated in university through the absence of adequately addressing and changing the social structures and expectations left in its place.
In January of 2022, a survey found that 64 per cent of respondents felt that the Covid-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing during Autumn term
Student Minds, a leading mental health charity focusing on students undertook a series of surveys relating to the pandemic. In September of 2020, 82 per cent of respondents said that the Covid-19 pandemic had negatively impacted their academic experience. A year later, the same survey found that 63 per cent of students felt that the pandemic continued to negatively impact their mental health. Furthermore 1 in 4 students expected the start of the new academic year to have a negative impact on their mental health.
A further survey, taken a year ago in January of 2022 found that 64 per cent of respondents felt that the Covid-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing during Autumn term. Moreover that ‘academic performance continues to be students’ biggest concern, and students are also worried about managing their time and keeping up with study commitments’.
Again, the expectation of university life and the reality in the legacy of Covid seem to be disconnected, as shown by the ongoing strain of expectations placed upon students. In a more recent annual study by the charity, they found that ‘Almost 1 in 3 students surveyed said that being at university has a negative impact on their mental health.’
Speaking to Liz Sorapure, the Wellbeing Manager at Bristol Mind, a local mental health charity with close links to the University, she reflected on the charity’s experience with students in the past few years.
‘We get a significant number of Bristol students accessing Meeting Minds. Meeting Minds saw a significant increase in requests for counselling from March 2020 in relation to the lockdown/during Covid.
The key issues were isolation, anxiety, depression. Other challenges were some returning home rather than staying in halls which increased some mental health challenges where family dynamics were unhealthy, problematic or privacy was an issue.'
Interestingly, she noted that there had been a ‘reduction in sessions offered by UoB which is now problematic for those seeking longer term trauma support. UoB offers 6 sessions to students over the academic year I believe.’
As of June 2022 Bristol ranked 68th out of 80 UK Universities in the first ever University Mental Health League Table. It was given a ‘very poor’ ranking, the worst possible, in four out of the five categories. Recent Epigram articles which discuss the University’s impact on mental health of students’ through changes to in person exams or the availability of extenuating circumstances show the current failings for proper measures to hear students' voices on these issues. Most of these structures worsened, or were brought into effect in the wake of the pandemic.
Although Covid is no longer the leading concern for the student demographic, as these articles show, Epigram found that 88 per cent of respondents to a poll agreed that mental health impacts from the pandemic are still prevalent in university life today.
With ongoing strikes, the cost-of-living crisis and ecological burdens facing the Covid cohort in more recent times, this brings into question what the consequences of this disruption legacy of anxiety surrounding higher education will truly be.
Nevertheless, the immediate impact on the current student demographic is clear with increased levels of anxiety and depression still seen amongst students. It is undeniable therefore, that aside from the increased mental health challenges, the pandemic has shifted our expectations of university life, by changing the social and academic norms at an unprecedented rate.
If you're struggling with your mental health, here are a few resources that may be of help:
Mind Bristol: 0808 808 0330 helpline (They also offer LGBTQ+ specific hep)
Bristol Nightline 01179 266266 (term-time only)
Vitaminds NHS mental health service
Samaritans 116 123
Featured image: DuoNguyen/ Unsplash