Student Minds responds to government announcement that students can return home for the winter holidays
At Student Minds we welcome the publication of plans which seek to enable students who live on or around campus to return home for the winter holidays. In an announcement on November 11th, the Government shared that students will be advised to travel home in the “student travel window”. This will be facilitated by a programme of mass testing which aims to provide students with the knowledge and confidence to make informed decisions about whether and how to return home. Universities are also being asked to take instruction online from 9th December in order to support this move.
We are now eager to see how provisions will be made for students who will remain in their university area over the holidays, and how the government will ensure a safe return to campus for students in time for the new university term next year.
Please note that we strongly advise students and their loved ones consult instructions from their institution and official government guidance for up-to-date information regarding Covid-19 restrictions and travel.
Facilitating mass-testing amongst the student population
For many students, being able to return to their permanent address to see loved ones will be beneficial for their mental health and wellbeing, especially after the difficulties this autumn term. If a student knows whether they have the coronavirus, they are empowered to make informed decisions about self-isolating or returning home, which protect not only themselves but the wider population. Mass-testing therefore is important in enabling students to protect both their mental health and wider public health. As a result we want the government to ensure that every student will have access to these tests, with universities supported with the necessary resources to facilitate them in a timely, safe, cost-effective manner.
Students who test positive should be provided with adequate support and receive communication to enable them to return home at a later date for the holidays if they wish. As students who want to return home are being encouraged to do so within a narrow timescale, we believe the government ought to ensure sufficient transportation is available to safely accommodate the mass movement of students across the country.
Creating community and supporting students who stay at university for the holidays
We also need to acknowledge that the christmas period can be difficult for students and not everyone will have the ability or preference to go home for the winter holidays. Some students may have a difficult relationship with family members, some may not have a family home to return to, and some students, particularly international students, might find that they can’t or don’t want to risk going home due to travel restrictions.
Therefore, it is essential that there is appropriate support in place for students who remain at university through what can already be a difficult time of year without the additional challenges posed by the pandemic. Students staying at university must have access to essentials such as food and medicine, facilities such as launderettes, and health services. Community-building activities could also provide students with a means to connect with one another and feel less isolated over this period. The provision of all this means appropriate staffing will be necessary. We expect the government and institutions to ensure this is available by ensuring manageable workloads, fair pay, and reasonable responsibilities for university workers, to protect their wellbeing too.
Importance of religious holidays for students
Not all students of faith have been able to celebrate their religious holidays with their loved ones. We’ve seen religious holidays such as Eid and Diwali happening in lockdown. For many students being able to practice their faith and celebrate with their loved ones is key to their mental health and wellbeing. All religious holidays need to be accounted for when making decisions about guidelines that are made for the student population.
The Government needs to share how they will enable students to get back to university safely
Before the student travel window, the government should publish plans detailing how they will get students back to university safely in January for their next academic term. The ability for students to return to their university address may impact their decision to leave for winter break in the first place. Without such a plan for January, we will see another mass migration of students which presents numerous opportunities for disease transmission. As a sector and country we must learn from the lessons of September, to avoid putting students, staff, and our wider communities at risk.
Help and support is available for students right now
We understand that this has been a challenging and uncertain time for many students which is why Student Space is here to support students through the coronavirus pandemic. Students can access direct support via phone, text, web chat or email, information and resources to help them navigate university life and a directory of university support.
At Student Minds we are pleased to be able to confirm that Student Space will be able to support students through the rest of the academic year. We are currently in the process of creating content to support students through the winter holidays and look forward to sharing these with you soon. In the meantime students can explore Becky’s blog and students experiences and tips of the winter holidays on the Student Minds Blog.
Once again, we look forward to hearing the government’s next steps and plans for students to return to campus in 2021. We will continue sharing our concerns for students directly with the Universities Minister's task force and will continue to share our recommendations publicly. Any plans made need to be co-produced in conversation with students and university staff.
Students deserve a say and not to be met with so much uncertainty in their next academic term. It is essential we work together to protect the mental health and wellbeing of our student and university communities during these challenging and uncertain times.
Student Space, our programme to support students in navigating university life during the coronavirus pandemic, is now three months old. Thanks to funding from the Office for Students (OfS) and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and by collaborating with a broad range of sector partners and experts, we have developed an ambitious resource to support students during this serious and challenging time for student mental health and wellbeing.
In the first months of the pandemic, we heard from students about how the pandemic affected their lives, from the transition to online learning, changes to social life and concerns about the future. It’s clear that the events of this year have exacerbated existing challenges for student mental health, in addition to creating new ones.
Since August, Student Space has been available to provide support students in England and Wales with these challenges, providing students with a trusted place to access direct one-to-one support, read or watch psychoeducation resources, and a directory to explore what support is available to them locally at their place of study.
As we go into a second lockdown in England and complete a ‘firebreak’ in Wales, we know that the impact is going to be felt by students and universities for a lot longer than initially expected. We are pleased to confirm that utilising the existing funding allocation, the Student Space programme delivery period has now been extended from December 2020 until June 2021, enabling us to provide support throughout the rest of the academic year.
Now that we’ve been delivering Student Space for a few months and students are well into the academic term - whether physically or virtually - we wanted to share some insights in what we’ve provided and learned so far and about our next steps.
What has this academic term been like for students?
The transition or return to university is always a time of uncertainty and change, but this year has been like no other. Students that started university for the first time broadly haven’t been able to experience the same opportunities as their predecessors, such as a rich variety of social activities, new sports and activities, meeting peers face-to-face, and exploring their campus and wider communities. Many students have had to self-isolate with people they’ve only just met in their accommodation, and due to lockdown restrictions are unable to meet new people beyond their household. Some have been struggling to engage with online learning, while others may not have had access to the technological means to successfully access course materials.
It’s not only first-year students who have been affected. Students at all ages and levels of study have had to adapt to a drastically different learning and social environment. Our listening work and the research base from across the higher education community suggest that many students are facing uncertainty about the future, job loss, academic issues, disruption to ongoing mental health support, and financial difficulties, amongst a variety of other issues.
What are we providing and learning through Student Space?
Responding to this range of experiences, a great deal of work and care has gone into ensuring that Student Space is useful, effective and aligned with student needs. Firstly, we’ve developed more than 35 pieces of psycho-education content based on the issues that we know students are currently most concerned about. These articles, created by experts, undergo a rigorous clinical review process to ensure that they’re safe and effective for the students who access them. Since August over 36,000 users have accessed Student Space content.
Secondly, we’ve developed a searchable directory of university services to support students during this period, with 139 Higher Education providers currently listed and more being added each week. This provides an accessible quick way for a student to find the support that is available to them at their institution at the click of a button.
Finally, the cornerstone of Student Space is the one-to-one support provided specifically for students. This support can be accessed via text, phone, webchat or email. At this point, we’ve supported hundreds of students through these services and we are prepared to support thousands in the months ahead. Improving the visibility of Student Space, so that more students can find and benefit from the one-to-one support, is our keenest challenge. We’ve seen a rise in the number of students accessing our direct services since the academic year began and the pressures on student life don’t seem likely to resolve themselves any time soon.
What happens next?
With the second national lockdown, it is more important than ever that we continue to listen to student experiences, work with university staff, Health organisations and the government to ensure that students are supported through all aspects of the pandemic. At Student Minds, we will continue to listen to your needs to help support you during these challenging times.
Although we’ve worked hard to deliver this programme over the last few months, we have no intention to rest on our laurels. The nature of the current situation means that students’ circumstances are likely to change. At Student Minds we are ready to adapt our approach, creating new content and commissioning new support services based on what students need.
During this next phase of Student Space we will also be compiling a list of trusted third-party support services, based on a quality assurance process developed with the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, so that students can find out about additional routes to help for specific challenges.
Thank you to all of our supporters
We want to thank everyone in the Higher Education and Health sectors, all of our volunteers, partners and supporters for all you are doing to support students and one another. Our Student Advisory, Programme Advisory and Independent Governance Groups have provided invaluable input into Student Space the last few months and as we’ve prepared to extend. We know first hand that working with the fantastic people in our communities, both hard working and inspiring HE staff as well as enthusiastic and passionate students; we can face the challenges. As the UK’s mental health charity, we also believe that there is a need for much more to be done to support and empower this generation, and to tackle the root causes of distress and health problems in the months and years ahead. We hope to see a range of support provided for students and to protect the mental health of people across the nations, at a time where it has never been more crucial.
In the meantime, please join us in spreading the word about Student Space and sign up to our mailing list to stay up to date.