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In-person teaching during the pandemic: is it really about student mental health?



Over the last few months, the issue of student mental health has moved to the centre of debates in or around UK Higher Education. It is seldom away from newspaper headlines, government guidelines or communications from Vice Chancellors, including Adam Tickell at Sussex, whose weekly ‘View from the VC’ on 11 September marked the point at which the topic became ubiquitous in his communications and foundational to his claims about the need for a level of in-person teaching (face-to-face). Before this, since the global pandemic the issue was only briefly mentioned in his ‘View from the VC’ on 23 April and the available papers suggest that he has not raised the topic in either Council or Senate. From 11 September onwards, he has regularly returned to it, most recently in a podcast for WonkHE of 6 November. Safeguarding student mental health has now become the default justification for VCs, including our own, UUK, and the government insisting on some in-person teaching on campus, despite ever increasing numbers of Covid-19 infections nationally, a rise in which the return or arrival of students to their university towns and campuses is known to be implicated.


Leaving the vital (though neglected) issue of staff mental health aside for the moment, in this blog post we draw on the expertise of UCU Sussex members working in mental health and psychology, including mental health practitioners. We scrutinise the claims that in-person teaching is necessary to safeguard student mental health during the pandemic and explore suspicions that these claims are at least in part a strategy to deflect from the underlying financial motives behind opening up campuses. We note that in its new report Independent SAGE (4 November 2020) observes that:


Universities’ strategic responses to Covid-19 have been constrained by the requirements of the marketized nature of the sector imposed by UK government. Thus, in-person teaching has been maintained in part because of potential negative financial consequences.


We believe that invoking student mental health serves as a fig leaf for this inconvenient truth in the discourses of the upper echelons of UK HE. As this post goes on to explore, the argument just doesn’t add up.


Don’t homogenise students!


In communications by the VC, notably in the WonkHE podcast, the level of homogenisation of students and of mental health is striking. In particular, the reference to students ‘living lives that we all did at their age’ occludes the differences of this generation’s experience of higher education and the impact of those differences on their states of mind and physical health, both before and during Covid-19. The VC’s ‘we’ may not be the ‘we’ inhabited by many of our students. With all that comes in the wake of the introduction of tuition fees, student mental ill health has increased fivefold since 2010. Conditions of debt, precarity and competition shape students' lives and psyches from their late teens onwards. Our students are doing more paid work outside the seminar room, often on zero hours contracts and in increasingly precarious circumstances associated with stress, anxiety and depression. The current emphasis on in-person teaching rarely seems to address the very real effects of this context - made even worse by Covid-19 - on student mental health.


Many UCU members are teaching commuting students (nationally, 21% of students commuted in 2019, often for financial reasons). Though concerned about the risks of isolation for their peers (particularly first-year undergraduates on campus), in our experience these students strongly prefer online seminars. They are saving time, saving money, and enjoying seminars where attendance and engagement during the pandemic often seem to be much better. They are also frank about the relief of not having to travel during the pandemic. But, again, this bears on the fact that our students are not a homogeneous group, and it is unhelpful to make general statements about the effect of ‘going online’ on their mental health.


Adam Tickell’s recent claim that students view a police presence on campus as ‘reassuring’ again homogenises a diverse student body, overlooking the likely damaging effects on the mental health of Black, Muslim and Tier-4 visa students for whom the presence may not be benign. It is difficult to maintain that inviting students to return to supposedly Covid-secure, but increasingly securitised campuses, including some with perimeter fencing around student accommodation and police dog patrols, has not itself risked the mental health of some students, not to mention their frustration and disappointment at unmet expectations of a “student experience” that would be barely modified by the global pandemic as promised by university marketing since the summer.



Blue-toned scene of an empty classroom, with pull-quote text across the projector screen reading "In short, VCs' current concern with student mental health would be more convincing if they had shown the same concern about the effects of students' economic situation brought about by marketisation, as well as the impact of the hostile environment and racial inequalities.


Why student mental health now?


In short, VCs’ current concern with student mental health would be more convincing if they had shown the same concern about the effects of students’ economic situation brought about by marketisation, as well as the impact of the hostile environment and racial inequalities. Young people’s mental health has been an increasing concern for at least a decade as they juggle the competing demands of studying, working, debt servicing, and - for many - surviving the effects of institutional racism and intersectional inequalities in education outcomes. Many faculty will have encountered the drastic rise in the number of students ‘flagged’ with depression, anxiety and, notably in this context, ‘social anxiety’, which for some is exacerbated by attendance at in-person seminars. As such, a rigid focus on the necessity for in-person teaching now becomes ever less plausible as the single most significant strategy for supporting mental health. We have been providing in-person teaching throughout the period during which young people’s mental health has come to the fore as a source of national concern, and it has evidently not protected them from increasing levels of stress, isolation and loneliness – a situation that we have not fully understood or begun to address.


It is uncontroversial to be attentive to how the management of Covid-19 can enhance existing problems of isolation and loneliness, but again the arguments for in-person teaching as the best way of addressing these issues are fragile at best. Not enough attention is paid to the possibility that ‘blended learning’ – in particular, the version adopted at Sussex where students are on a rota of ‘in the room’ and ‘on screen’ – might exacerbate feelings of isolation. The anxiety about being a source of infection, as well as that of being infected, with Covid-19 is inescapable in a ‘socially-distanced’ seminar room, with everyone masked and told not to ‘hang about’ the building before or after teaching.


The VC refers to students not being particularly at risk from contracting Covid-19, without referring to the fact that in-person teaching cannot happen without a member of faculty in the room – more of whom fall into higher risk groups than their students, who may well be aware of and anxious about this fact. In the same vein, the VC is silent about students’ anxieties about ‘taking Covid home’ or ‘taking Covid to work’. What are the psychological impacts of this? It is at least a question worth asking if we are going to identify in-person teaching as a ‘proxy’ for social engagement. The suggestion that we need to “balance the mental health risks with the covid risks” invests in a bogus dichotomy because these are not two opposed sets of risks: getting Covid-19, fear of Covid-19, and caring for others with Covid-19 can all negatively affect mental health.


Referring to UCU and NUS as ‘getting it wrong’ about moving teaching online, the VC passes over the recommendations from both SAGE and Independent SAGE to move all teaching (other than some lab- or practice-based courses) online. This silence occludes, once again, the wider public health issues around in-person teaching, and the reality that our students are part of a society in which some people’s health vulnerabilities are far greater than theirs.


Are there really no good enough options right now?


To say that few of us would choose to live through a pandemic is not to say that there are no good enough options, or no ways of being creative in it. In these circumstances, the VC’s emphasis on in-person teaching devalues online provision that is reliable, safe and, often, very good. In devaluing that provision by contrast with the ‘real thing’, this discourse risks a type of catastrophising (e.g. the VC’s comment in a transcript of the WonkHE podcast that we need to recognise that ‘there are no good options’ at the moment).


Of course we are social animals who crave interaction with others. And of course groups and interaction are good for our and our students’ mental health, yet evidence also shows that social networks are created largely via the people that students live with rather than who they are taught with. The equation of ‘connection’ with in-person teaching, and hence in-person teaching with mental health, is speculative rather than evidence-based. An extremely large body of research on computer-mediated communication shows that people can be psychologically more connected with their social groups online and physically alone than in physically-copresent contexts. This is because the ‘group’ is a cognitive construct as well as a material, socially embodied entity. Physical distancing does not (have to) mean psychological distancing. The assumption that online teaching and online interaction in general is necessarily impoverished is based on a number of myths about communication, e.g. that most of it is non-verbal. Conversation analytic research shows that we do pretty much the same communication actions regardless of modality. As the recent Independent SAGE report summarises:


there is evidence that online formats are successful. Online learning has been the norm in other countries and will be adopted in many countries during the second wave and beyond. The same amount of ‘contact time’ is delivered, with informal reports of far more contact and interaction than normal.


That some students are indicating that they would prefer more in-person teaching in the recent student pulse survey is perhaps unsurprising given that locally the VC, as well as the PVC for Education and Students, have stated unequivocally since July that online alone is not sufficient for students’ needs, even in the context of a global pandemic. These communications, and their counterparts on a national level from UUK and the government, will doubtless have informed students’ responses. Such communications from UEG have also risked creating a two-tier model of learning, consigning students whose teaching is (partially or exclusively) online to a method deemed to be inferior, and excluding staff who are teaching online, for whatever reason, from contributing to the mental wellbeing of their students.


The preoccupation with in-person teaching during a global pandemic also prevents us from thinking about how we might actually help students address their isolation (most of us are feeling some degree of it) or use the campus spaces to facilitate safer socialising for those students who want it and feel safe to do it. Crucially, we also need to support students who don’t have easy access to the technology that they need for both blended and online offers – an equalities issue that seems to be nobody’s problem.


A Whole University Approach


Sussex is cited in the OfS’s student mental health initiative as a case study in taking ‘A whole University Approach’, with an emphasis on ‘support and partnership’. In line with this, UCU calls for UEG to lead the University community to scrutinise the weaponization of student mental health by the government and UUK and to take a nuanced approach, grounded in staff-student experience and research. A dogmatic equation of student mental health with in-person teaching obstructs this.

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Sussex UCU drawing on expertise of members working in mental health and psychology, including mental health practitioners.

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