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University students struggled with more than just study over lockdown

Communication issues and policy changes exacerbated students’ uncertainty during the lockdown period, reports Ellen Sinclair.

The level four announcement on March 24 signalled the start of a period of upheaval for all New Zealanders, but few groups faced more challenges over lockdown than university students. From the rush to get home at short notice, to controversies over accommodation fees, to uncertainty over exams and course refunds, university life over these past few months have been characterised by policy backflips and a chronic lack of communication, many students say.

“They couldn’t for the life of them just make a decision and stick to it to give us peace of mind,” says one student of her university’s disordered approach to lockdown.

New Zealand universities have had to make drastic changes to address what the University of Otago describes as the “additional anxiety” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. But among New Zealand’s more than 175,000 university students, there are many who say their institutions are not doing enough.

Students at Otago are among those who feel their university reacted too slowly to the pandemic. When the full level four lockdown was announced, students in Dunedin had just over 48 hours to organise and pay for travel home (this deadline was subsequently extended), Of the university’s 20,000 students, only around 3,000 have a home base in the Otago region. For the other thousands of students, getting home to their families before the deadline became a priority.

Flights, Intercity buses and Interislander ferries sold out quickly, says one student who struggled to travel back home to the Bay of Islands. She eventually had to fly from Christchurch to Auckland and arrange a car ride at both ends. Students would have liked to be able to make these plans earlier, she said, but the delay in moving studies online meant that compulsory tutorials were still running on the Friday prior to lockdown. If the university had cancelled these tutorials and started online-only study just days quicker, she said, “it would have saved the massive panic” for the thousands of students who chose to return to their families.

While study was put on hold for the week during which lockdown commenced, Otago University’s online lectures and tutorials were fully back up and running by 30 March.

The neo-Gothic main building, University of Otago (Photo: Getty Images)

Otago University Student Association (OUSA) president Jack Manning said that although the level of student consultation was initially “shaky”, the university worked hard to identify and action student issues throughout the lockdown period. He was directly involved in many of these conversations, he said, including exam timetabling, accommodation rebates and financial insecurity. Student representatives also had input into decisions around academic grade scaling and the financial hardship fund –  through which students have so far been provided with over $500,000 in equipment and $600,000 in other financial support, according to the university.

But financial and academic hardships weren’t the only issues facing students in lockdown. Many found it mentally challenging too. A residential assistant for an Otago student hall says the uncertainty was particularly hard on first years. “I had so many distraught kids coming to me,” she told The Spinoff. While most students went home, some residents remained at her hall over lockdown, cut off from both the outside world and their own family and social networks. Trying to support these students while also trying to keep up with her studies proved difficult, she said.

Her residents were far from the only students left stranded in Dunedin. In response to concerns, the university implemented a programme of wellbeing checks for almost 2000 students and staff stuck in the city without family support. The programme allowed the university to “pick up problems related to student health and wellbeing, and involve medical professionals and student health where necessary,” University of Otago vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne told The Spinoff

“The feedback from students, anecdotally so far, can be characterised as one of gratitude and appreciation for the extra care the university showed to them,” she said.

Meanwhile, OUSA launched an online portal to provide students with support resources, including financial aid and food bank assistance. The student support team also increased its use of online and phone services to meet a surge in requests from students needing more guidance and aid, according to OUSA student support manager Sage Burke.

Semester one exams were yet another bone of contention among Otago University students. Exams began on June 3 but the timetable was only released in mid-May – which many students say gave them insufficient study and planning time. The university apologised for the delay, saying it had been forced to wait for guidelines from the government on level two operations. “We needed to very quickly design a whole new exam system during unprecedented times, said Vice-Chancellor Hayne. “The university did the best it could in the time available.” The university has also announced it will scale up all students’ first semester final grade by five points, or one letter grade.

Victoria University of Wellington (Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

In the capital, Victoria University of Wellington currently has no overall policy to scale up affected grades, but is considering adding acknowledgement of studying through a pandemic to every student’s academic transcript. A petition to scale grades is currently at over 7,000 signatures. The university replaced semester one exams with online tests, take home tests and essays, while also restructuring courses. Students were allowed to withdraw from one paper without penalty, and with a fee refund.

Teaching was put on hold at the beginning of lockdown to allow academic staff to transition to online and to give the university time to reach out to vulnerable students, says director of academic studies Pam Thorburn. The university not only moved its classes online, but did the same for its academic and student support services.

Early on in lockdown, the university ran a survey and a re-orientation day, and then followed up with students who had raised concerns over their technological or financial hardship or other issues.Victoria University’s medical services took online consultations and ensured students had the medication they required, says Thorburn.

She says the key to their lockdown response was communication. “We did as much as we could to ensure that our students were well supported whether it was an academic concern or support concern.

“Information on how students could connect with us was always provided in terms of what options they had.”

But that wasn’t the experience for many students, says the university’s student association. “We still see a lot of people frustrated about the way the university goes about communicating its decisions,” says Michael Turnbull, VUWSA welfare vice-president.

He believes this has been the experience of a lot of students in New Zealand. “Even when the universities make really, really beneficial policies, so many students don’t know about them.”

The student association was involved in discussions with academic staff regarding decisions over lockdown. Turnbull acknowledges that the university actively sought feedback from the association, but says the advice was not always taken onboard.

With students in lockdown, universities had to get creative (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the greatest challenges for students over lockdown was financial, he says, as many students lost their jobs while still having to pay Wellington’s high rents. Another issue was access to tech. Many students had relied on campus facilities for technology and specific software for courses such as design and architecture, and some had no internet access at home. The university granted hardship funds to students who faced these issues, which Turnbull says helped maintain students’ academic success throughout lockdown.

In his experience, students gave “a lot of positive feedback” around the provision of health and wellbeing services online. The university’s online counselling services, introduced during lockdown, will continue for students who study remotely or who otherwise lack easy access to on-campus counselling services.

Here again, though, clear communication seemed to be a challenge. A third-year Victoria humanities student said there was little promotion of the mental health services available and that she received much more communication and support directly from the university’s Pasifika advisors than general university staff. She also praised her lecturers for being responsive to course-related email questions and concerns.

Not all students have complaints about their institutions’ handling of the lockdown. A vet student told The Spinoff she was impressed by the way Massey University in Palmerston had supported its student body during uncertain times. Online counselling was available, and the university was constantly updating students on changes and what they would mean for students, she says. Her only criticism was that in the first days of lockdown the amount of information being sent every day could be overwhelming.

Still, it’s clear that the majority of New Zealand’s universities fell down to some extent over lockdown when it came to communication, causing additional stress for students. If there’s one lesson students want their universities to take from this experience, it’s to examine their communication strategies – and to listen to the feedback from those who felt they were left in the dark.



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