A group of first-year students during the first socially-distanced introduction day in August. Photo: DUB

Older students struggling more with corona than first-year students; UU offers extra support

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It may come as a surprise, but first-year students are actually holding up better than students who have been enrolled at UU for longer. That’s according to a survey answered by more than 6,000 UU students. The university wants to take measures to enable students to study on campus and see each other more often after the lockdown.

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With these measures, UU aims to improve the students’ mental health as the survey, which was answered by a fifth of UU’s 30,000 students, reveals that mental health is a point of concern.

Some of the initiatives to be taken were unveiled in a statement sent to the university council last month. Of those, some can only be put into practice once the lockdown is over. They include:

  • More possibilities to reserve study places to work together.
  • Expanding the possibilities of face-to-face education or education-related activities.
  • More social activities on campus, such as allowing student unions to reserve a spot for gatherings.
  • Continuous activities aimed at improving mental health and helping students to find a balance between study and relaxation, such as lectures, workshops, and (sport) activities.
  • Increasing the number of student psychologists and improving students’ access to them.

These new measures address specific mental health needs mentioned by the student in the survey. After block 1, mental health questions were added to the survey already sent to UU students after blocks 3 and 4 of the previous academic year, in which students were asked to share their opinion about UU’s education during the pandemic.

Fatigue takes over
The survey shows that first-year students seem to fare better than senior students when it comes to mental health. The former gave an average score of 6.7 for their “general wellbeing” throughout block 1, while the latter lag behind with a 6,1. The freshmen are also more enthusiastic about UU’s online education than students further down the road.

Many parties, including the Dutch Minister of Education, have expressed concern about first-year students who entered the university amidst the coronavirus crisis and therefore had little to no chance of getting to know it. UU’s survey brings a bit of nuance to this scenario. It should be noted, however, that not all freshmen are the same: there are major differences among this group, and the same goes for senior students.

The report sent to the university council included some possible explanations to the higher satisfaction levels of freshmen. For example, they don’t know what to expect from the university yet, so they have nothing to compare their current situation to.

New students were also given priority when physical classes were still possible and study programs paid extra attention to them. In the survey, first-year students appear to be slightly more satisfied with the support they receive from the university than senior students. On average, UU students are quite satisfied with the support, with a score of 3 out of 5.

A final explanation is that older students have been making do with online education for a longer period of time. This is the third block in a row that they’re receiving (most of) their education online: three quarters of a year, therefore. Fatigue seems to be taking over as a result.

More physical contact
Although most students report they also have a computer and a place to study at home, there is great demand for study and work places at the university or the university library. The main reasons seem to be that they can focus better there. Being able to meet other students also helps.

The respondents also indicate that they expect more help from the university regarding these two matters, with first-year students missing contact with other students the most, while, for senior students, having a place to study without being disturbed is more important. They would also like to receive more help with planning and structuring their studies.

Many students are critical of several aspects of online education, as was the case in previous surveys. They would like more explanation and guidance. Nevertheless, on average, students have a neutral opinion about the quality of their online education.

Cause for concern
UU students gave an average grade of 6.3 for their mental health, which is not too bad. Still, researchers see enough reasons to be concern. The survey included a section with open questions, in which many students mentioned they’re struggling with mental strain, fatigue and loneliness. One in seven students say they are concerned about their mental well-being. More than one in three students also think that the university should provide more help in this area.

It’s no news that the switch to online education takes a toll on students’ mental health. These answers were somewhat expected. This is not the first time UU decides to take action to improve students’ mental health: the university has made extra places to study available and increased access to supervision from study advisors and tutors.

You can read the report about the survey in full here. The link requires your Solis ID.

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