Anxiety among UK university students is mounting as they feel unprepared for final exams after a year of disruption and uncertainty about their education. The COVID-19 crisis has kept many students off campuses for the last 12 months, and now universities are reporting that an alarming number of students are asking for a repeat year.
The government announced last week that students will not be allowed to return to campuses until at least May 17. UK students responded with frustration as this meant they would not have access to in-person teaching or campus amenities, such as libraries and study spaces, until after the academic term had ended.
Universities, such as the University of the West of England and Nottingham Trent University, have in turn reported that an increased number of students have requested a repeat year, citing mental health and academic concerns amid campus lockdowns.
One professor told The Guardian that students are finally cracking under the pressure after a year off-campus: “Students are suddenly facing the prospect of assessment and it’s becoming very evident to them that they are behind. I’m dealing with five cases of suicidal thoughts among my own advisees.”
However, students who elect to repeat the year will also incur the financial burden of that decision. For many students, a repeat year will cost them a maximum of £9,250 on top of their already incurred debts.
The National Union of Students’ vice president for education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, reported that the NUS is calling on the government to provide the funding for students who wish to repeat the academic year. “Any student who needs to repeat this year should be able to do so while fully funded and at no additional impact to their loan entitlement,” said Gyebi-Ababio.
“Given the disruption that students have seen this year, it is sad but not surprising that many universities are reporting increases in deferrals.”
In response to the government’s decision to delay a full return to in-person learning, university leaders projected that students may not be prepared to perform to meet academic standards, particular as they will have to miss out on review and ‘catch-up’ sessions that had been planned prior to the government announcement.
In addition to being deprived of access to campus amenities, students have also reported difficulty accessing the necessary materials they need to complete their courses during the pandemic.
Olivia, a student at Oxford University, expressed concern to accessing materials such as library books, saying that there was competition between students to get to books first, especially as books require a mandatory 2-day quarantine upon their return before they can be checked out again. “I’m in my second year so I’ll be able to catch up, but it will be a lot of extra work over a summer when I don’t really want to be working because, hopefully, more things will be open,” said Olivia.
Students on practical courses were permitted to return to partial in-person learning on March 8, but students report that even this concession is limited, citing difficulty accessing study and studio spaces due to social distancing restrictions. Students worry that difficulties accessing materials and amenities may affect their ability to produce work sufficient to land them good jobs after university.
In response to their limited access, Ruby Betts and Ellis Tree, a pair of graphic design students at Kingston University, created a book titled “a message of protest.” The book contains handmade slogans from 25 students which include sentiments such as “a bed is not a studio” and “we have no materials. ” The pair has sent the book onto the university’s minister in hopes of having their struggles recognized.
“Our creative course requires technical skills and we haven’t been able to get teaching to access the facilities to get those skills. An online cal doesn’t teach you how to make things with your hands. [£9,250 fees are] too much to pay for too little, that the consensus from arts-based students” Tree said.
A parliamentary petition calling for university fees to be reduced to £3,000 for students wishing to access a repeat year has received over 580,000 signatures. Additionally, the student-led Write Off-Right Now group organised a social media campaign on April 16 to encourage students to contact their MPs about their struggles and concerns. The campaign warned MPs that “students have received little recognition for their struggles this year and little support from the government.”