Students of the COVID-19 year

It’s a common practice to distinguish the life-cycles of students based on their enrollment in one or other academic year. These year-numbers help us to navigate and plan accordingly. 2020 year though is definitely not defined by its four different numbers but by something from the past year – by COVID-19. And for the whole globe and especially for students this COVID-19 year has various ways of being an exceptionally challenging one.

Waking up in a new reality

It is not a secret that we all were not ready to function according to the new rules of the pandemic, neither were our universities of course. Mid- March, when all the European countries took confinement measures, the vast majority of universities implemented emergency distance learning courses within a day or two. Students around Europe just woke up in a new reality full of challenges. Perspective students woke up to know there is no certainty about how the 2020 autumn semester will look like and what their exams will be. International students woke up to know they are restricted to travel home, they have lost their student jobs, their landlords will soon be kicking them out and nobody knows if they will be able to pass online exams even if they are lucky to get repatriation flights to their homes. Graduating students woke up to know there is no more graduation ceremony of course and there are no supportive policies to help students to secure their Grade Point Average (GPA) as the quality of their research and thesis work could potentially be affected negatively due to confinement. Less interactive (or not interactive at all) learning experiences, not user-friendly digital learning platforms, digitally not equipped lecturers and teachers, lack of mental health and other support services, sometimes disturbing home environments, uncertainty: these all have become a part of students’ reality.

Online learning: a challenge for 65.66% of students

By the 20th of April the European Students’ Union together with the Institute of Development of Education in Croatia launched a survey dedicated to analyzing the student life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the survey was open only for 10 days, it gathered more than 17.000 responses from around European countries. The data is still being analysed, however, some brief findings are available to help us understand the situation of students around Europe.

More than 50% of our respondents indicated having a larger workload than before the on-site classes were cancelled. 65.66% agreed with a statement that it’s difficult for them to focus during online teaching in comparison with the on-site classes.

Out of the respondents, only 21.6% indicated that they have managed to keep their student job, the rest have either lost it or not managed to get one yet. 35.98% of the respondents said they have to worry most or good part of their time for covering costs of living. Similarly, 41.91% of students mentioned that most or good part of the time they have to worry about how to balance care responsibilities with their studies.

73.31% of the respondents reported feeling tired, worn out and exhausted either all or some good part the time they spent. In parallel, 58.59% of them reported being bothered by nerves/nervousness some or good part of the time.

Almost 24% of the respondents indicated that they never, rarely or only sometimes have access to good internet connection. 28.77% reported not being satisfied with how their practical classes were organised, 17.27% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. 26.12% of the students highlighted being dissatisfied with the organisation of lectures as well, 17.94% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. A comment that comes from one of the respondents of the survey is very relevant here to cite:

My university, for example, has responded very poorly, with a lot of delays, confusion and feeling like the students aren’t worth the universities time. If you had students’ opinion, I’m sure that data could be used to give feedback to help the university realize that it can do more for a possible future situation.

Next to all these worrying results, nevertheless, we also see that students are hopeful for and committed to better opportunities and brighter futures. 64.06% of the students have been convinced that even if the work is hard, they can learn it and 63.08% of them believe that they can manage to do all the classwork if they won’t give up.

Positive initiatives and hopes for the future

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 has opened a free access to more than 700 textbooks and research publications. Dozens of universities opened parts of their programs as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

These are just a few examples. Some institutions also managed to work with interactive and student-friendly digital platforms, integrate new tools and approaches to the learning and teaching, transform the support services and be there when students need them. And our common responsibility is to make sure all the students can benefit from such opportunities.

Overall, the COVID-19 response was a testbed for universities to understand that they can and should be agile and flexible institutions. This was a proof that the long-standing resistance towards integration of digital technologies and rapid transformation to new innovative approaches is groundless. We all witnessed the transformative potential of universities around Europe, so let us make sure the 2nd half of 2020 fosters this transformation toward more equitable, inclusive and good quality learning experiences for the students of COVID-19 year.

Blog by

Gohar Hovhannisyan

Gohar Hovhannisyan

Gohar Hovhannisyan is the full-time Vice-President of the European Students’ Union (ESU) and is enrolled in the Leadership and Management in Education online study program of the Newcastle University. At ESU her main focus is in the area of quality of higher education, with an emphasis given to quality assurance, learning and teaching and meaningful students’ participation in HE governance. She has extensive experience of student representation that started from the local level at the governing board of the Armenian State University of Economics and continued to National and European level. On the national level, she was leading the establishment of the national QA pool of student-experts and currently is developing the one existing at ESU. She is serving as the Executive Board member of EQAR, as well as representing ESU in the Advisory Group on Learning & Teaching of the Bologna Follow-up Group.

This blog is part of our COVID-19 blog series aiming to highlight issues affecting education, learners and education activists worldwide, including displaced populations, inclusive and adult education. We are also highlighting issues from regional perspectives in Africa, Latin America and several blogs will focus on youth. Stay tuned to our COVID-19 webinar series for more in-depth discussions.

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The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a civil society movement that aims to end exclusion in education. Education is a basic human right, and our mission is to make sure that governments act now to deliver the right of everyone to a free, quality, public education.