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The Student Experience during COVID-19

 By Professor Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, University of Bristol

COVID-19 is a crisis like no other. When it comes to higher education, the sheer scale and complexity of the challenges it’s created are unique. For our students, the associated disruption to both their academic and personal lives will almost certainly represent a significant source of stress and anxiety. 

I’ve been Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Bristol for just over a year. The newly created role reflects Bristol’s commitment to providing a positive, inclusive, engaged and rounded educational experience for all 27,500 of our students.

Student Welfare During Covid-19

In recent weeks, the University has been working at speed to respond to COVID-19. While there are a huge number of important considerations informing this response, the welfare of our students remains our highest priority, guiding our whole approach as an institution.

Like most universities, our students are drawn from all walks of life, including international students, mature students and students from a widening participation background. Understandably, in the face of the disruption caused by the pandemic, there have been calls from some quarters to abandon teaching and assessment this year – how can students be expected to study at such a challenging time?

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Keeping Learning and Assessment on Track

We have, of course, weighed the different arguments very carefully. And while these are indeed extraordinary times, we believe keeping education and assessment on track is an important source of structure, normality and focus for our students. We’ll therefore be resuming teaching across all 200+ of our degree courses following the Easter break.

Like most other providers, teaching will be delivered to students remotely via our online platforms. Likewise, the summer assessment period will also take place online. However, all exams will be underpinned by a policy of ‘no detriment’. This means, in effect, students have a ‘safety net’ to ensure they’re not disadvantaged academically by the current crisis.

Student Experience during Crisis

But while learning, teaching and assessment represent important considerations in formulating the University’s response to COVID-19, I believe the environment in which students work, live and play is equally as important. Ensuring we continue to deliver an outstanding student experience throughout this crisis is my paramount concern.

At Bristol we start from the premise that connecting and communicating with others is crucial to alleviate feelings of isolation amongst our student community. That’s why we’re working hard to introduce new initiatives aimed at helping students feel connected with their friends and peers.

Maintaining Social Links

Many of our face-to-face social groups, including those in halls of residence, have now transitioned to social media platforms and the Bristol Student Union has been very active, including setting up a virtual 'Student Living Room'. We are also and we’re working with Big White Wall (an anonymous online community where students can express their thoughts and feelings) and TalkCampus (an online peer-support community of students from all over the world), amongst others.

Of course, Bristol’s halls of residence remain open for those students unable to leave campus and our Residential Life service continues to provide hight levels of support, including for those self-isolating and unable to access food. For our most vulnerable students (e.g. care leavers and students estranged from their families) we’ve established ‘Bristol Voices’ – a network of alumni who have thoughtfully volunteered their time to provide virtual/telephone support and chat to students experiencing loneliness. 

Delivering Wellbeing Services

Elsewhere, while we’ve always promoted the close link between mental wellbeing and a healthy lifestyle, with our sports facilities closed, we’re encouraging students to find alternative ways to stay fit and active. Providing free access to high-quality home workout videos, for example, is one approach we’ve taken.

Finally, key to our maintaining a high-quality student experience is the offer of a university-wide network of online support for any students who are struggling. This includes our Student Wellbeing Service (which is often a first point of contact for students and can offer help, guidance and put students in touch with more specialist support services); one-to-one virtual contact with personal tutors and access to our Student Health and Counselling Services.

An Unprecedented Challenge

The coming term will be like no other in the University of Bristol’s almost 150-year history. That doesn’t mean the student experience is taking a backseat to other institutional priorities. On the contrary, we’re viewing it as a lens through which we view all other activity. I am incredibly grateful to my colleagues who are working so diligently to ensure that, despite the unprecedented challenges we face, our students can continue to fulfil their academic and personal potential.