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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic is hurting university students’ mental health

Institutions of higher education locally and globally are undergoing unprecedented changes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A study on how the pandemic has impacted teaching and learning at South Africa’s higher education institutions was conducted by multiple researchers this month.

The research specifically looked at how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted teaching and learning.

Wits senior lecturer Emmanuel Ojo said universities and colleges have been forced to switch to online teaching and learning. Many were unprepared for this move to what is termed emergency remote teaching and learning, said Ojo.

He said many universities have adopted some form of hybrid learning approach.

“Higher education institutions are attempting to combine face-to-face and online instruction into a single, seamless experience.

“This situation is likely to remain the status quo for some time, especially in the global south,” he said.

Adding that this is because, although a variety of vaccines are available around the world, distribution and actual vaccination has been slow in poorer countries – and particularly on the African continent.

“The pandemic and slow vaccination programme in Africa and South Africa specifically has had serious implications for higher education.

“This is because, for many students, the university campus is not just where they go to learn, universities also provide a space for relationships that helps students form important networks and alliances that evolve and extend beyond their university education,” he said.

Ojo said the global pandemic has created more uncertainty about the future, including higher education and the world of work.

“This uncertainty emerged in our research as fundamentally affecting mental health.

“South African universities have to support students’ transition through this uncertainty,” said Ojo.

South Africa and countries across the world initiated Covid-19 lockdown restrictions just over a year ago. This study looks at how students have coped and are negotiating the current challenges.

The study included a total of 1,932 university students who completed an online questionnaire over a period of six weeks. It used a mix of undergraduate, postgraduate, and international students.

The methodology included questionnaires that yielded demographic data. It also examined students’ perceptions of readiness and motivation for online teaching, learning and assessment, student engagement, and their attitudes towards COVID-19 and its impact on higher education.

Ojo said open-ended items also were included such as students being asked to reflect on the disruption caused by the pandemic.

“Seven themes emerged from the data. These represented challenges that hindered students’ ability successfully to learn online during the COVID-19 era,” he said.

The seven themes include internet connection, mental health personal challenges or ability, time management, being easily distracted, family members making studying difficult and the interaction between lecturers and students.

Bryan Jason Bergsteedt, Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge said they found that undergraduate and full-time students were approximately twice and four times, respectively, more likely than were postgraduate and part-time students to indicate problems associated with mental health.

“Those aged between 18 and 24 were approximately 1.75 times more likely than students older than 24 to present problems associated with mental health.

“We also found that there is a gender dimension to mental health. Female students were 1.83 times more likely than male students to indicate problems associated with mental health. These problems included stress, anxiety and depression,” he said.

 Bergsteedt said a country like South Africa cannot afford to ignore the impact of the pandemic on higher education, especially on students’ health and well-being.

“South Africa’s comparative and competitive edge is locked in the youth, especially university students.

“They are a critical mass in building the capability of the state to play a developmental, transformative role,” he said. 

He added that South African universities, working with the Department of Higher Education and Training and other national government departments, must create and resource a long-term strategy to support the well-being of university students as they transition through this pandemic.

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