“Believing the 2020 start of my computer science course would be normal was wishful thinking. I spent a fair wedge of time locked down in a half-empty four-bed with weird yellow wallpaper and cans everywhere, playing records at full volume and burning wooden pallets with my housemate Phil. I can look back now, in my final year, and say that this period slapped thanks to him. But it all reads a bit desolate contrasted with the “normal” experiences enjoyed by previous generations.
Newcastle’s 2023 cohort has a different set of obstacles: the pandemic hangover, for sure, but they’ve also started university during the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation. It’s little wonder the challenges to students’ mental health and well-being are more complex than ever.
Surveying a sample of first-year students as they approached the end of their first semester, The Courier found the average self-reported mental health rating was eight out of 10 – a remarkably upbeat score in the teeth of those pressures. But while they may seem surprisingly positive, they shed light on an important aspect: the resilience and determination of today’s university entrants in the face of adversity.
When we look at the bigger picture, a more concerning pattern emerges. A study by King’s College London, published in September, indicates that students’ mental health has significantly declined since the pandemic and is showing no signs of a complete recovery.
Over the past few years, the percentage of UK undergraduates reporting mental health difficulties has nearly tripled, rising from six per cent in 2016/17 to approximately 16 per cent today.
To create a healthier student community, we must offer more accessible support services and address the cost-of-living crisis. Student well-being is a collective responsibility, and we must do more to support those who fall through the safety nets.”
Anthony Welsh, head of online at The Courier (Newcastle University)
“While students will struggle to find a better place to live than Glasgow’s West End, experiences of city living are increasingly being denied to those of us studying here. Current first-years have largely avoided the anguish of being housed in hotels or commuter towns (as happened last year), sure, but rising housing costs have instead placed them at the sharp edge of the cost-of-living crisis.
On average, housing providers in Glasgow have raised rents by more than 19 per cent. The situation with accommodation owned by the University of Glasgow is only a little better. It proposed a 9.5 per cent rent increase for the current academic year, despite running a financial surplus. While I paid £129 a week in 2021, the same room in university accommodation is now £147 a week – that’s an additional £740 a year.
So, are we going to see an increase in support provided by maintenance loans? Don’t be silly, the UK government would never be so generous. (They handed over a measly rise of 2.8 per cent for English students this year.) What about the Scottish government, aren’t they more progressive? Well, there is a rent freeze, capping private increases at three per cent, yet rents for student housing were inexplicably exempted.
It’s inexcusable that Holyrood boasts about having a Minister for Tenants’ Rights while forcing students to use the limited support they receive to subsidise the bank balances of landlords. This is happening alongside the University of Glasgow’s decision to oversee a staggering 40 per cent increase in student numbers in the last five years, a heedless expansion that has encouraged housing providers to profit.
To be a student in Glasgow right now is to feel helpless. We are cash cows, begging for mercy from governments, greedy universities and grabby landlords.”
Jeevan Farthing, editor-in-chief of The Glasgow Guardian (University of Glasgow)
“Bristol is a city with a rich heritage of great clubs, and of great artists emerging from those clubs. But enjoying it as a first-year goes hand in hand with financial sacrifices.
First year Jaz thinks that “club entries are on the more expensive side compared to other cities I have visited… Only a select few clubs or bars have good drink deals, and they are normally only on Wednesday student nights.” Basically, she says, Bristol “is too expensive to go clubbing”.
In her first term, Jaz has had to make fundamental sacrifices, explaining that “sometimes I opt out of having three meals a day to save money”. If they want to go out at all, part-time jobs are a necessity for most students. That’s something of which Jaz, two months into her course, is already keenly aware: “I was advised to pick up extra shifts when at home or work a part-time job in Bristol in order to get by.”
An added complication is that going out to pubs and clubs is viewed as a rite of passage:
‘There’s big pressure to go clubbing not only in freshers’ [week],’ she says, ‘but for the first month to make friends and bond with flatmates, course mates or societies.’
This all means that first-year students have been left in an unenviable predicament: having to choose between affordability and friendships at the beginning of what’s meant to be an exciting new chapter of their lives.
Beyond the understandable desire to party with new friends, being unable to socialise presents a wider variety of problems regarding loneliness and well-being. The pressure of the first term of the first year as the crucial time to make friends has to be alleviated. Otherwise, financial constraints and isolation risk overwhelming new students even before that first term is out.”
Amelia Jacob, co-editor-in-chief of Epigram (Bristol University)
“The pandemic had an obvious impact on education – on how classes, lessons and tutorials are taught. But although there has been much discussion on how it has affected schoolchildren, to a large degree university students have been overlooked.
Prior to 2020, many universities had begun using online teaching tools, but Covid sped up transition into the digital sphere. This has pros and cons. Regurgitating knowledge under timed exam conditions is an old-fashioned way of testing students’ understanding of concepts. Now, there are alternatives such as takeaway exams, which are generally assigned over three working days.
But at Aberystwyth University, the Covid hangover has had a more negative impact, with many of the teaching standards in place during the pandemic still here. Sure, there are positives to online learning: being able to absorb knowledge at your own pace, in your own time, and going back to it as often as you want.
But when you’re paying a minimum of £9,000 in tuition fees annually, the lack of IRL connection makes you wonder if it’s all worth it.
Learning remotely is particularly challenging for first-years, depriving them of the opportunity to actually meet people. After years blighted by isolated learning, everyone wants change. They want to experience, finally, in person, what has been denied to them since 2020. The shift to online learning is impacting the quality of feedback, too – many staff are now scheduling office-hour meetings as online only.
We in the student body are meant to understand this is all for our convenience, allowing us to discuss academic matters from the comfort of home. However, many of my first-year peers would prefer to meet tutors face to face, crafting that student-teacher bond and deepening the learning experience. We are, after all, new to this. We’re desperate for some type of return to traditional learning models.”
Kate Stepanova, writer at Mouth of the Ystwyth (Aberystwyth University)
“For many first-years in Belfast, the thrill of university comes crashing down with the reality of how much it costs to live.
Maintenance loans can only stretch so far, barely covering essentials; almost a third of UK students are left with only £50 a month after rent and bills according to an NUS survey. The result: no choice but to turn to paid employment. Of course, this is nothing new. But the amount of shifts people are picking up to cover basic expenses is severely impacting studies. A Sutton Trust survey indicates that, since the start of this academic year, just under half of undergraduate students have missed university to work. Money is so tight that many are relying on Queen’s University’s communal pantry, a free refill station offering staples such as cereals, pasta, noodles, herbs and spices.
For some, even the cost of living in the city itself simply cannot be justified. “Living costs have dissuaded me from living in Belfast,” says Tiffany, a first-year at Queen’s. “I travel to university every day, which can take up to 45 minutes each way, to sometimes only be in class for an hour. This isn’t only tedious, but I miss out on the full student experience. It’s a hassle to go to any classes or society events. I miss out on making closer connections with people.”
At least Queen’s has taken some steps to address the financial difficulties, creating a £7.69 million support package for students and staff, in addition to offering the former support and assistance through union facilities and hardship funds.
But more must be done. We need calls for increased funding to come from a higher level and an immediate uplift in loans. When students can’t afford to live – or even eat – at university, something is seriously wrong.”
Rebecca Carlin, writer at The Gown (Queen’s University Belfast)