College students were among the least likely in society to feel the worst health effects of Covid-19, but they were profoundly affected by the wider impact of the pandemic.
The closure of third-level institutions as physical places of learning, the loss of personal contact with friends and teachers, and the curtailment of the types of activities – sports, society meetings and social events – that are such a formative part of campus life served to disrupt the student experience in significant ways.
Staff did tremendous work to make the abrupt switch to virtual learning as smooth as possible, but college-on-screen was no substitute for the real thing.
That much is clear from the results of the annual Irish Survey of Student Engagement, which polled almost 50,000 students in February and March. It showed a dramatic decline in the number of students who felt they had quality interactions with staff. Students reported fewer social opportunities; fewer chances to collaborate with peers; and a widespread sense that there was less engagement generally than in previous years.
The survey adds to a growing body of literature that shows the dramatic effects of the pandemic on third-level students. It was not uniformly negative – the enforced experiment in virtual learning has shown how new technologies can at times enhance learning and make colleges more accessible. Yet the negative effects will linger.
A report by the learning organisation Aontas in July found more than half of students in higher education struggled with remote learning and the effects of the crisis on their mental health. Many worked in isolation, in cramped spaces with ill-suited devices and unreliable internet access.
When the pandemic comes to an end, the long-term negative effects on young people’s education – in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special learning needs – will be one of the most difficult legacies to grapple with. Much of the focus until now has understandably been on school-going children, but as the evidence is making increasingly clear, the fallout has been much wider.