Studying through COVID: how the pandemic has impacted the university experience

8 December 2020

There’s no denying that this academic year has been unlike any that University of Melbourne students have faced before. With the end of the year approaching, Farrago is rounding up how the year has impacted students and what lies ahead in 2021.

The most notable change for students this year was a rapid transition to online learning. Except for some medical and final-year students, students have not been permitted on campus since mid-March. The transition received mixed reactions from staff and students. While some appreciate the increased flexibility, most feel the quality of their education has suffered. Riley Doran is in the final year of his Arts degree and struggled with transitioning online.

Most of my classes have been really ill-prepared for being completely online and because staff are in the same boat of transitioning, there hasn’t really been any support in that area,” he said.

“Keeping ahead of assessments has been a real challenge . . . tutorials have started to feel more like home study than a typical class. It’s so overwhelming feeling like there’s so much online work to do when in person there is a balance between home study and in-person classes.”

Pavani Athukorala also struggled with the transition, particularly after leaving Melbourne to return home to Sri Lanka because of the pandemic. She has found it difficult to perform academically compared to in the past. 

“As an international student I much prefer in-person classes,” she said.

“With online learning, I feel like I’m not getting what I paid for. It’s not what I signed up for.”

The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) successfully ran two campaigns this year pressuring the University to provide students with academic amnesty during the pandemic. Two petitions created by UMSU received over 13,000 and 16,000 signatures respectively. As a result, subjects taken during 2020 that score below a student’s current average are not included in their Weighted Average Mark (WAM). 

Both Doran and Athukorala reported feeling “grateful” for the WAM amnesty agreement, but still feel the University is failing to adequately support students during COVID-19. 

Online learning has been doubly difficult for first year students, transitioning both to university and a digital campus. Margot Wilson moved from Tasmania to start her degree in Semester 1 and has found her first year “disappointing” and “strange”. 

“Meeting new people was definitely something I’d been looking forward to and now it’s been much harder to do,” she said. 

“I feel really disconnected from the uni and from my classmates because I haven’t been on campus since week 3 of first semester and have made very few meaningful connections.”

While academic performance has been a key issue for students this year, so too has mental health. Farrago reported earlier this year on the mental health challenges facing international students as well as problems with university support services. Student mental health has been affected by isolation, academic pressure, and insufficient services. Professor Patrick McGorry from the Orygen Centre for Youth Mental Health is concerned that the pandemic will have a prolonged impact, predicting that COVID-19 will likely “scar” young people for the next 5-10 years. 

It is uncertain what 2021 will look like for students. The University continues to monitor government advice and will provide further details when re-enrolment opens in November. The return to campus will be phased in gradually, with a full return to on-campus learning rumoured not to occur until September 2021. 

This transition back to campus is also complicated by uncertainty as to when international students can return to Australia. Athukorala is trying not to worry too much about 2021. “Next semester I have resigned myself to the mindset of what will happen, will happen,” she said. 

Students can be certain that the University is planning to return to normal academic procedures in 2021. A spokesperson told Farrago:

“We are planning for a more stable academic year within a new COVID-normal and therefore standard policy regarding Special Consideration, the WAM, attendance and participation requirements will be applied.”

The University did, however, commit to maintaining support services next year.

“The additional mental health support introduced this year including the after-hours crisis support and counselling staff will continue into 2021 and we will review our other services to best support our students.”

Farrago will continue to monitor updates from the University and Victorian Government and provide further details when they become available.

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