By Daniella Theis, Maisie McGregor, Monika Metodieva and Stefan Carlin
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed so many parts of how our society operates including university life. Students are facing an extremely difficult situation – they are isolated in halls, being made redundant from their jobs, and asked by society to not attend any social gatherings.
Katy, a student at Strathclyde says she is not staying in student accommodation, but instead is renting a flat:
“The fact the guidelines also technically apply to me in a very old demographic area and I can’t so much as go into the same place as other people here technically via the legislation just because I choose to study at university an hour away is ludicrous.”
“The guidelines are also, like a lot of the current guidelines, very shortsighted and very much confusing in relation to everything else. They’re happy to send kids to school and people to work in packed places, and have non-students in pubs and establishments, but students are suddenly the problem for COVID-19? It makes zero sense” adds Katy.
When asked if she feels the university is supporting her mental health, or offering resources which she can use to access support, she said:
“The University’s response has frankly been really confusing and not very good for my mental health whatsoever. I have depression and anxiety issues and I was getting zero updates that made sense until very close to the semester starting, like the week beforehand, and all I had to go on by that point was that the first three weeks would be online.”
“I understand that the government response is always changing and they have to react, but this reaction by the University has been slow, anxiety-inducing, and frankly unacceptable” she continues.
The University has implemented different campaigns to support students and their mental health. Speaking to the Strathclyde Telegraph, a spokesperson for the University says:
“The health and wellbeing of all our students, and particularly those who have to self-isolate, is at the forefront of our minds. Our staff team is on hand to offer support and help to our students, supported by online access to a wide range of student services.”
They also have range of support measures for students who are self-isolating. “These include a ‘buddy scheme’ where volunteer of staff will make regular contact with students to support their wellbeing and help identify any concerns or worries they may have, regular online activities, tea and talk sessions, an online café and library lounges.”
The Disability & Wellbeing Service has collated a range of resources to help students support and maintain their wellbeing during these times.
“Staff within the Service are also available to speak to students and offer support, having successfully transferred all services to video, telephone or email, allowing for greater flexibility and responsiveness. This includes a twilight service until 8pm Monday to Thursdays during term time. Over the longer term, we are keen to continue to offer a blend of appointments including face-to-face, video, telephone and email.”
They also state that an Early Intervention Counseling Team has been appointed, enabling staff to offer same day intake appointments to all students presenting with mental health and wellbeing issues. A group wellbeing and therapy program online for this semester has been introduced, including a range of options such as Mindfulness, 10 Keys to Happiness, Managing Stress and Anxiety.
Staying in halls during the pandemic
Some of the biggest concerns for students that stay in halls have been the fact that they may not be able to leave their tenancy agreement or they have to self-isolate on campus. The University says:
“All students in self-isolation are being offered daily check-ins from staff member volunteers. We are enhancing our provision for students residing in halls on and off campus to include named counselors for each hall of residence with a direct referral process in place. Our Students’ Union and academic departments have also been running a range of programs to help create a sense of community, build peer support and promote health and wellbeing.”
A first year student at the Stirling University, Will C. shares his experience.
“We’re trapped by a very vaguely worded occupancy agreement into paying for our accommodation even though there’s no in person teaching. We were informed prior to the contracts that there would be blended learning in place.”
“I’ve spoken with two people from the university’s accommodation department and I was told that I can technically study at the University of Stirling and as such I’m not eligible for the 7 or 28 days notice to terminate my contract I would be fully liable for 37 weeks of payment.”
“What’s worse is we have international students in the same boat who’re basically trapped in a foreign country for no reason” adds Will.
Regarding this snapshot of his tenancy agreement, he explains that:
“You may think that this is fine, but the university is open, so I can’t opt out of it. Although classes are all online, technically the University is open.”
“I left for home today. I stay about 3hrs away and I’m planning on exploring my options for terminating my contract remotely, but I feel like because I was given false pretence before I entered the contract I could reasonably claim it’s void anyway”
When asked about the new regulations that were introduced for students, Will said:
“I think the regulations are unrealistic. I also think it’s kind of ridiculous that we were enticed to attend campus and are being punished to do so, trapped both physically by regulation and financially in these contracts.”
“I also think it’s incredibly unrealistic to expect me to stay in halls where several students are flagrantly violating guidelines, with whom I have to share a kitchen, and that’s somehow less risky than going home to my single parent and isolating with them.”
He continues in regard to the claim that universities in Scotland put profit ahead of students:
“I think the university is 100% putting profit before the students. The focus is on how the COVID-19 restrictions impact students and nobody is talking about the occupancy agreements or contracts which, in my experience communicating with students, are by far the bigger issue. Social things everyone is suffering together, and are much more understandable, treating the students like cash cows isn’t.”
“It’s very much the business end of universities” Will concludes.
The University of Strathclyde discusses the situation with tenancy agreements:
“The University has implemented all aspects of Government guidance to make the campus as safe as possible, however staff will take an empathetic approach to students raising concerns.”
“The Coronavirus (Scotland) (No. 2) Act 2020 introduced notice to leave periods for students residing in halls of residence and Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA). Under the legislation, students are obliged to give the University 28 days’ notice of their intention to depart from their hall of residence.
“In recognition of the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, the University will release students from their contract on the day they leave and will not charge them for the 28 day notice period. More information about students and accommodation can be found at https://www.strath.ac.uk/coronavirus/students/guidanceforstudentaccommodation/” they state.
Another first year Strathclyde University student, shares her experience in halls, however she wants to stay anonymous.
“It was very quiet on moving day. But almost every night last week there have been parties and mixing between the halls of residence with no consequences. It has been really lonely because it seems that the only way to meet any people outside of your flat is to go out and break the rules.”
When asked about what the University was doing to tackle this kind of behavior, she said:
“The University has been disciplining the students which they have caught partying, but there were so many parties that it would have been impossible to catch them all. It really has calmed down this week. I have seen security out and about though.”
When asked about self-isolation, she said:
“I haven’t heard of anyone in my accommodation that is self-isolating but I’m not sure about the others. However, there was lots of mixing between different blocks last week so it could be very possible if there were any positive people at those parties it could spread between blocks.”
“I haven’t received any direct correspondence about mental health support or anything like that. You kind of have to go searching for advice on where to go if you’re struggling.
I’ve seen headlines about the “looming student mental health crisis” however I really think we are already in a student mental health crisis. It’s been 2/3 weeks for most Scottish students and people are starting to feel really lonely” she says.
“It’s not even about nights out, getting drunk and all that for most people. Students really just want to meet people with similar interests, it’s getting really difficult to stay positive whilst sitting in your room all day, especially since the Universiy was insinuating that in-person teaching was possible very soon (October/November).
“Students feel trapped as it is very obvious now that we won’t get in-person teaching at all for the foreseeable future.”
When asked if there was one thing she could say to Strathclyde’s principal, Jim McDonald and the Scottish Government, she responds:
“What were you expecting? Bringing thousands of people together with no testing?
If there was more access to testing for students when they arrived I really think this situation could’ve been handled so much better.”
The university’s response to these claims is:
“Since March, the University has been working tirelessly to adapt to this unprecedented situation. This has included a rapid transition to online teaching, examination/assessment, degree conferment and support for students living in University accommodation, including those self-isolating.”
“This support includes a variety of ways for students to stay in touch with each other, to seek health and mental wellbeing support and to receive deliveries of food and cleaning packages for students who are self-isolating. The national Covid-19 testing regime in Scotland is working well for the University community with the ARC walk-through test site nearby on the Glasgow Caledonian University site” they add.
Some students were also concerned about potential penalties if they do not attend face-to-face classes. The university says:
“Within our stated commitment to the provision of a blended learning in Academic Year 20/21 it is understood that there will be occasional circumstances in which individual students may be unable to attend campus and may need to study remotely for a period of time.”
“In such situations it is essential that affected students are in regular contact with their Department or School to discuss their individual situation and ensure that the appropriate mechanisms can be put in place to their studies throughout Semester 1 and successful onward academic progression.”
At these challenging times, we should all follow the government’s guidelines and try to be there for one another. The Strathclyde Telegraph team is here for any of you that need their voice to be heard.