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How lockdown has affected first-year university students

Mental health and self-motivation are some of the main concerns among the current cohort

Key points

  • Students are reluctant to speak up about mental health problems to university workers
  • Students reported difficulties in retaining information and not engaging with the study material. Pre-recorded lectures are an additional difficulty
  • Universities should be mindful of this cohort’s future mental health and consider ways to support their university experience moving forward

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on first-year university students living in halls, with some calling the enforcement of lockdown rules akin to living in a police state, research by Fundamental Media has found. We noted a reluctance among students to speak up about mental health concerns caused by Covid-19 measures to university workers, as they are often the same individuals enforcing lockdown restrictions.

During the height of the UK’s winter lockdown, Fundamental L&D ran three focus groups to gauge overall sentiment, the impact of Covid on their future plans and their overall satisfaction with the choices they have made. We interviewed a group of Year 12s, a group of first-year university students, and a group of individuals doing a gap year.

Our discussions revealed that the first-year university students have been the worst affected by the pandemic. Especially for those living in halls, student life has been very different from what they had expected. Mental health problems have increased, and the support offered by the university was considered insufficient.

The students were acutely aware they are not receiving the true university experience. While students living at home or off-campus can escape from the surreal reality created by the pandemic, those living in halls are constantly reminded that Covid is still around, one student said. “We need to wear a mask to go from our room to the kitchen. There is always the added stress of doing something wrong. It’s like a police state.”

Support from the university

Living away from home and family for the first time, the pressure to make friends and the transition to university studies all have an impact on the mental health of first-year students in any given year. But the Covid lockdown and the added stress of the constant monitoring by university wardens has made a very challenging life phase even more difficult for the current cohort. A first-year medical student in our focus group revealed he has had to accompany several other students to A&E after mental health-related issues, because no university staff was available to do so. 

When asked if their university is dealing effectively with mental health, the students say it is a bit of a grey area. As one noted: “If all students are scared of the Covid wardens – is my mask on right? Am I allowed to be walking with someone not in my corridor? – then they wouldn’t go to them with any problems they may have.”

While the students did receive a phone call from the university to see if they were doing ok, some said it felt like it was a tick-box exercise for the university rather than a genuine offer to help. “It felt like, even if we said we weren’t doing well, they wouldn’t really do anything apart from checking in again in a few weeks’ time,” one student explained. 

The mental health implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are also affecting studies. Students reported difficulties in retaining information and not engaging with the study material, even with topics they used to find engaging pre-Covid.

Pre-recorded lectures are an additional difficulty for students. During the first lockdown many lectures were given live albeit virtually, but many professors switched to pre-recording their lectures during the second lockdown. But students lament the lack of interaction with the teacher and other students, and not having the opportunity to ask any questions, although they understand the situation must be hard for tutors and faculty as well.

To accommodate both the students who miss the interaction of live virtual lectures as well as those that like the flexibility to study when and where they want, universities could consider to record the live lectures, so that each student can decide whether to log into the live lecture or watch the recording at a later time.

Despite the difficult first year the students are having with all the Covid restrictions, none of them said they regretted going to university. They seemed hopeful that they will have a better second and third year, as the pandemic is slowly coming to an end.

Impact on student recruitment

While it is challenging for universities to get it right, there are clear lessons to be learnt from how the pandemic is handled. Universities should be mindful of this cohort’s future mental health and consider ways to support their university experience moving forward.

Furthermore, as the word of mouth through friends, family and peers is an important factor for prospective students’ university choices, the experience of the current first-year students will affect brand reputation and student recruitment in the future.

Recent research by The Student Room found that Covid has affected the university choice of 13% of Year 12s. One of those factors influencing the likelihood of switching university choice due to Covid was how universities are responding during the pandemic and how they treat current students.

One user of The Student Room said: “Some universities that I considered have dealt with this pandemic in a terrible way and have treated students poorly. I have decided not to attend those universities.”

The research also indicates that it’s not just the mental health of the current cohort that is a concern, but that of prospective students as well. The Student Room said that in March 2021, only 20% described their mental health positively, compared to 61% pre-Covid, while just 40% said they felt able to cope with the uncertainty of lockdown, compared to 51% in April 2020.

More than three-quarters (78%) also mentioned having problems with motivating themselves to study, so universities may want to consider ways in which they can help current and incoming students with self-motivation going forwards.

But despite issues with mental health and self-motivation, Year 12s are also seeing the positive consequences of the pandemic and 96% want to keep some features of their lockdown lives. More than half (57%) would like to keep the flexibility to work/study at a time that suits them, 51% appreciates the flexibility to work/study from home, and 47% want to continue studying more independently.

Universities can learn from the experiences of current first-year students and work with them to find solutions to improving students’ mental health and self-motivation issues. They could incorporate the themes of self-motivation and student mental health in their student recruitment programmes. It’s important for universities to be open about the challenges of Covid-19 and to communicate which efforts are being made in close collaboration with the student representatives to improve existing conditions.

Insights Media buying and planning How lockdown has affected first-year university students