Anxiety is mounting among students who are feeling underprepared for their final exams after more than 12 months of major disruption, with some universities reporting that more students than usual are asking to repeat the year.
Students in England were told last week that those who are not studying for practical courses will not be permitted to return to campuses until 17 May, prompting frustration that they will not receive any in-person teaching or access to study spaces and libraries until the teaching term has ended.
Several universities, including the University of the West of England and Nottingham Trent University, have reported that higher numbers of students than usual are asking to repeat the year due to mental health and academic concerns.
One professor said that students are cracking under the pressure of disruption and uncertainty. “Students are suddenly facing the prospect of assessment and it’s becoming very evident to them that they are behind. I’m dealing with five cases of suicidal thoughts among my own advisees,” he said.
Students who choose to repeat a year will also have to pay for another year of accommodation, while a further year of fees – which for many is the maximum of £9,250 – will be added to their debt.
The National Union of Students is calling on the government to fund an extra year for students. “Any student who needs to repeat this year should be able to do so while fully funded and at no additional impact to their loan entitlement,” said NUS vice-president for education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio.
“Given the disruption that students have seen this year, it is sad but unsurprising that many universities are reporting increases in deferrals.”
Responding to the government’s decision to delay the wider return to campus, university leaders warned that students may struggle to meet academic standards, as well as missing out on catchup activities that had been planned, including in areas that are difficult to teach online such as employability and skills.
Students who spoke to the Observer said they have struggled to gain access to the materials they need to complete their courses properly during the pandemic.
Olivia, a student at Oxford University, said there was fierce competition among students who have returned for slots to access the library as well as for books which need to be quarantined for two days between use as part of strict covid rules. “I’m in my second year so I’ll be able to catch up, but it will be a lot of extra work over a summer when I don’t really want to be working because, hopefully, more things will be open,” she said.
Ariff Castronovo, a second-year medic at Oxford, asked his university about repeating the year when he felt overwhelmed by the twin pressures of his course and the pandemic. He credits subsequent weekly meetings with his personal tutor as giving him the confidence to be able to cope.
“It came to January and I was preparing for my mock exams and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep my head above water. That was the feeling of worry, that it can only get worse because I’m already behind, and then I had another term’s worth of work to get through,” he said.
Students on practical courses were permitted to resume in-person teaching and access study spaces from 8 March. However, Ruby Betts and Ellis Tree, two graphic design students at Kingston University, say in-person teaching is limited and it is difficult to gain access to studio spaces due to social distancing rules, leaving them worried about building the portfolios they need to get jobs after graduation.
The pair created a book titled “a message of protest”, which features handmade slogans from 25 art students including “a bed is not a studio” and “we have no materials” to draw attention to their struggles, which they have sent to the universities minister.
“Our creative course requires technical skills and we haven’t been able to get teaching or to access the facilities to get those skills. An online call doesn’t teach you how to make things with your hands. [£9,250 fees are] too much to pay for too little, that’s the consensus from arts-based students,” Tree said.
Students are angry that the year hasn’t lived up to the experience they were promised last summer.
One parliamentary petition asking for tuition fees to be reduced to £3,000 got more than 580,000 signatures , while the student-led Write Off, Right Now campaign group organised a day of social media action on 16 April and asked students to write to their MPs warning that “students have received little recognition for their struggles this year and little support from the government”.