Coronavirus (COVID-19) higher education, further education and community learning and development: wider harms

This paper considers the indirect, wider harms of the pandemic on students, learners and staff within the Further Education, Higher Education and Community Learning and Development sectors from the perspective of stakeholders and drawing on the findings or relevant reports relating to these sectors.

4. Social effects

The social effects of Covid-19 have been far reaching. Perspectives regarding the impact on Scotland’s student population is reflected within this section, drawing on evidence provided and comments from stakeholders.

The NUS Coronavirus Student Survey Phase 3 (4) indicated that 75% of surveyed students in Scotland were missing social interactions with their peers and also staff. University and student representatives stated that due to isolation the lack of on-campus activity for many students, relationships are under-developed and students don’t know each other or their lecturers like previous cohorts did. Student representatives indicated that the challenges of social reintegration of students on campus for in-person learning and socialising is making it harder for students to adapt to student life. This could be damaging the social development of many younger adults and 1st and 2nd year students are becoming noticeably less vocal on issues of student life. There have been reports of an increase in discrimination and intolerance towards students with disabilities, particularly ‘invisible’ disabilities, leading to many feeling compelled to disclose their disability to manage face covering exemption situations. There have been reports about increased levels of general rudeness amongst students and staff as well as the reduced tolerance levels of students towards people’s views.

College representatives reported that colleges enrol disproportionally high numbers of students from the most socially disadvantaged backgrounds. SFC College data (16) shows that 32.2% of credits delivered on FE courses at colleges in 2020-21 were provided to learners from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland. The impact of the associated Covid-19 harms on this cohort has widened inequalities. Many younger students, as well as those with additional support needs, have not had the chance to socialise and develop essential everyday life skills. This has resulted in the emergence of some behavioural issues in students and learners that have not generally been observed in previous year-groups. Student and college representatives made the point that developing skills for learning, life and work is a key component of students’ education, particularly for those who are currently furthest away from the workforce, but the impact of the pandemic has in many cases, severely limited this skills development.

University representatives also noted an increase in social skills deficits being reported, especially in younger students (e.g. those aged 14-16 when the pandemic started), both in social settings and in learning, as students have not socialised like they normally would have pre-Covid-19. Student representatives reported that there have been limited opportunities to question lecturers or peers through online learning, affecting student mental health. Many younger students demonstrate a lack of safety behaviours and resilience. This is affecting student life, learning and the ability of students to be resourceful. An example of how institutions are supporting students is the University of Glasgow’s the SafeZone App to address general safety concerns for students. Students can use this app to alert the University’s security services of an emergency, of a need for first aid, or to access help such as obtaining directions.

College and university representatives reported that equity of rules to deal with Covid-19 across all areas of society would be helpful. Students find it confusing how they can visit what they might consider high risk settings such as pubs and night clubs, and yet experience tight restrictions within perceived low risk settings within education. On a similar theme, a 16-year-old school pupil who may also be attending college, has different sets of rules to a 16-year-old who has already left school and is attending college. Strong messaging and effective communications is therefore required to overcome the potential for confusion. These discrepancies may also be problematic when trying to encourage Covid-19 compliance on campus. Student representatives indicated that college and university students are confused and in many cases anxious about the Covid-19 rules. Consistent, concise and well-timed communications to students is required in order for messaging to be effective.

Student representatives indicated that there are some international students who have not received a recognised vaccine and struggle to be eligible for the Covid Status app (to access mass events and night clubs, for example) resulting in confusion among students about what they are able to participate in, thus affecting their opportunities for socialising.



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