Virtual university experience 'not worth it' as students left feeling 'isolated' and 'forgotten'

Welsh university students said their learning experience is "not worth it" and that studying from home is taking its toll on their mental health.

Megan Horn - a student in her second year at Cardiff University - said learning remotely has been "isolating" while Finlay Bertram from Newport said he feels as though students have been "forgotten".

Where possible, universities have moved learning online to avoid the risk of spreading coronavirus among students and staff.

That change has left some like Megan feeling pressured to produce the same level of work when she says she has "nowhere near the same resources" she would if the pandemic was not happening.

Meic, a helpline for young people in Wales, said contacts to their service have increased as students struggle to adapt to virtual university teaching.

Megan moved back home to rural Dyffryn Ardudwy in Gwynedd to continue learning remotely.

While Megan was able to make friends with people she lived with in her first year at Cardiff University, she said she has missed out on meeting people on her course.

"I didn't have the opportunity to make friends with people on my course," she said.

"It's a nice thing to make friendships with people who are going through the same experiences as you.

"The courses are all so's nice to be able to draw on similarities...I think a lot of people have missed out on having that."

Not being able to build those relationships has felt "isolating" for the 20-year-old, who also moved back to her home in Gwynedd, north Wales, to study remotely.

She said mental health is "inextricably linked" to the quality of work someone is able to produce, which is already challenging enough when learning from home via pre-recorded lectures.

While acknowledging university staff are finding it tough too, Megan said it is "quite ridiculous" that she is expected to produce first class essays while unable to access things like the library easily.

She said: "I know a lot of lecturers who work really hard to give us the best value for money that they can give us with the circumstances.

"They worked really hard and they're struggling as well but in terms of resources, it's just nothing like it was."

The politics student believes the price she is paying both mentally and financially is not worth the learning experience she is getting.

Megan is still paying full rent for her shared house university accommodation in Cardiff while studying and living from home in Gwynedd.

A first year student from Newport, Finlay Bertram said he feels like "one of the lucky ones" to be able to have four hours of in-person teaching each week.

"If it's in person, obviously you'e got to go, you've got to get up, get motivated," he said.

"I think then you're in the right headspace to learn, whereas if you're sometimes in bed watching and learning...then you're not really in the right headspace, you don't really take in that information."

Being a sociable person, Finlay said he has still really missed being able to take part in activities, see people and enjoy a normal university life.

Despite this, Finlay did add that Bath University have offered "a load of mental health support", which is "really good".

Finlay said: "no one's enjoying [university] as much as we should".

Jack Lee studies Business Management at Cardiff Metropolitan University and is currently in his second year. He echoed Megan's view that adapting to online learning has been "difficult for everyone" and people miss out on the benefits "interaction" from face-to-face teaching can bring.

Jack said virtual lectures mean people zone out easily as each student can keep the microphone and camera off - disengaging from what is being taught.

He described his university experience currently as "dull" and "boring" and "completely different" to his first year.

He added that the university do send out things like "welfare emails" to check on students but he still feels "unmotivated".

In response to students' concerns, the universities say their focus is to ensure all students can achieve the learning outcomes of their degree programmes and are working tirelessly to develop new, innovative and flexible methods of learning and support. 

Tuition fees are set by the Welsh Government who say they provide the most generous student support package anywhere in the UK.

A helpline service for children and young people in Wales said they have seen an increase in university students contacting them with issues relating to the pandemic.

Stephanie Hoffman, who works with Meic, said students have called with concerns over their safety but also about "their ability to actually learn".

She said: "We've gone from face-to-face teaching, to online, back to face-to-face, back to online.

"I think the disruption and uncertainty is exasperating a lot of other issues, resulting in other issues to do with mental health, wellbeing, anxiety - we are seeing a lot of that coming through."

She added that students who are struggling should try to identify the activities that do make them happy, like listening to music, and make the most of those things.

Simple things like "making sure that they're eating, sleeping, exercising and that they're maximising any opportunities they do have to socialise, even if that is online" will also help.

  • Children and young people aged up to 25 in Wales can call Meic's helpine on 0808 80 23456 for free between 8am and midnight. They can also text 84001.