‘Universities need to put wellbeing at the very heart of their institutions’

Posted: 11th October 2021

Over the next few weeks our healthcare students are returning to campus, or, indeed, starting their new degree programmes at university. There is a sense of anticipation, excitement, and trepidation.

While our students have accessed campus at various points over the past 18 months, this has been minimal and with many social distance requirements (rightly) in place.

At my university we are holding many lectures and seminars face to face rather than virtually. There will still be social distancing measures in place, but these have been carefully arranged while still trying to introduce a positive experience for our students. Certainly not an easy task.

The campus is busy, buzzing and, for the first time in what feels like forever, alive. Students appear to be respectful (so far) and are wearing masks and following social distancing guidance when required. With cautious optimism, I am looking forward to the spontaneity of in-person lectures, but this is certainly not without some level of anxiety.

Some universities, for example Edinburgh, Cambridge, and Oxford are maintaining virtual lectures for the foreseeable future. It would seem that some of the short-term options during the pandemic are now at a level of normality.

There are some very significant reasons to keep online lectures as part of a hybrid model of learning and teaching. It certainly may be safer as we head towards the winter months and can be more accessible (and less anxiety-provoking) for many students.

But so many opportunities are missed virtually – interactions, debates, energy, and human contact. And, although these may be achieved online, it does not, in my experience, reach the same level as face to face.

The majority of students are ‘delighted’ to be back on campus. When speaking to them, they have described a level of complacency and lack of motivation during virtual lectures. The more ‘honest’ ones have shared that they would sometimes simply join a lecture at the beginning but do something completely unrelated during the entirety of the presentation, as it was so difficult to engage or join in virtually. They have described feeling motivated, excited and keen to ‘get started properly’.

However, it is very important to recognise that not all students will be embracing a return to campus – nor academic staff. Many will have an increasingly high level of anxiety and will have preferred the virtual option of learning for their own personal reasons.

It is of utmost importance that these students and staff are offered pastoral support and are not overwhelmed with this re-introduction. Student mental health issues have reached an all-time high during the pandemic and its associated complexities, but it is important to be very mindful of reversing this too quickly.

Compassion, reassurance and support should be offered, in bucket loads, to students and colleagues during the ‘new’ transition to some level of normality.

The following months will be challenging for everyone. With Covid-19 comes a huge level of uncertainty, and another period of lockdown cannot be discounted. However, it is important to maintain some level of calm and stability. With the appropriate support and guidance, this may be achieved.

Universities need to begin to put wellbeing at the very heart of their institutions – and, perhaps, it has taken a pandemic for this need to be realised and, finally, acted upon.

Dr Fiona Cust is associate professor in children’s nursing and collaborative practice, Staffordshire University

Source: ‘Universities need to put wellbeing at the very heart of their institutions’ | Nursing Times 8 October, 2021

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