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'It's like being at a match and they keep moving the goalposts': The rapidly changing face of Irish college life

Demand for mental health supports have already risen as colleges move classes and social events online.

The gates of Trinity College at College Green in Dublin.
The gates of Trinity College at College Green in Dublin.
Image: Leah Farrell

TENS OF THOUSANDS of third-level students will on Monday begin the new academic term at colleges across the country.

But learning alongside Covid-19 and adhering to the ever-changing public health guidelines will pose a challenge for both on-campus and off-campus life. 

Colleges and universities have spent weeks putting measures in place to support learning and facilitate student engagement.

But with limited numbers on campus, booking systems for communal areas, and student unions forced to move their social events online, the landscape of college life has been drastically changed. 

The challenge now for both institutions and their students is to adapt to public health guidance and often at short notice. Only yesterday, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris told colleges that all lectures should move online for the next two weeks, with the exception of a small number of essential lab practicals and workshops.

“This is disappointing, I know, but absolutely necessary if we are to stop the spread of this virus. We are [...] asking students to minimise travel and to minimise the number of social contacts on and off campus,” he said.

“We must do everything possible over the next few weeks to stop its spread and give students the best chance of resuming on site activity. Please stay safe and hold firm.”

Many institutions had already limited the on campus interaction between students and staff but with official direction at Government level, this year’s student cohort will face a year like no other. 

“We want life to be normal, we want our students to have a great social life, a great learning experience and for that to take place in somewhere like Trinity, that’s what we want but we just can’t have that this year,” Catherine McCabe, Dean of Students at Trinity College Dublin explained to TheJournal.ie.

“In conjunction with our Students Union and all our services in college, we’re trying to provide a positive, open learning experience for students.

Realistically, we want our students face-to-face as much as possible but we completely understand that that has to be in line with public guidelines.

Trinity College has planned a hybrid model for students this year. That will see a large portion of lectures transferred online with a much smaller number of lab practicals and tutorials taking place face-to-face on campus. 

But when the number of Covid-19 cases in Dublin climbed and the county moved into Level 3 restrictions in line with the Government’s Living With Covid framework last week, all existing plans had to once again be reviewed and on-campus plans altered to restrict numbers further.

Since then Donegal, home to Letterkenny IT, has also moved to Level 3 and several other counties including Louth and Waterford, which are also home to third-level institutions, are on a knife-edge in terms of their position at Level 2.

NO FEE MIN HARRIS GOV BUILDINGS JB3 Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris announces restrictions for colleges and universities. Source: Julien Behal Photography

With the spread of Covid-19 prompting new measures from Government, students will need to remain flexible this year, and whatever hope they had of increasing their on campus presence is in doubt. 

“We want our students to understand that and take responsibility for themselves and the people around them,” McCabe said.

“We’re not entirely sure how this is going to pan out but we do have accommodation available for students, flexible accommodation available for students… we have extra health services available for students in terms of counselling and we’ve seen an increase in our services there.”

Pints after a long day in lecture halls, or clubs and socs events that, particularly for first years students, have been a tried and tested way to make friends on campus won’t feature in the same way they have in previous years. 

“They won’t meet up but the Students Union has been fantastic in this,” McCabe said. “They have been working incredibly hard to increase the amount of space available to students, and what we have is more spaces available and in different formats. 

“It’s in buildings but also they’re putting up three marquees in the college. Those marquees are going to be heated and secure, and have wifi and all that type of thing, toilets, so they’re not rough and ready. They’re a good standard. 

“Those will have to be booked and on a 45-minute basis… We’re mindful that while students need social spaces, they need learning spaces. And what we didn’t want to do is just say ‘there’s a marquee, it has loads of space’ because again, it has to be safe for students. 

“There’s a substantial amount of students who are very worried and stressed about coming back face-to-face, and we need to be cognisant. Everything we’re doing, we’re working with students to make sure that this is what they think will work for them.” 

‘Up in the air’

Hugh McInerney, Entertainment Officer at TCD’s Students Union described the “challenge” of ensuring students can maintain as much of a social life as possible throughout the coming year while also remaining vigilant of the threat that Covid-19 poses in congregated settings. 

He explained how plans were drawn up to support students but later scrapped multiple times over the summer months ahead of freshers’ week this month. 

“We were far too hopeful back in June, we went from ‘normal’ to ‘nearly normal’ to where we’re at now which is ‘fully online’,” he explained. 

It’s like being at a match and people keep moving the goalposts on you.

“We’re happy enough and we’re going to keep firing ahead, and one of the things we’ve done is for freshers’ week, which is such an important experience, is to have some sort of semblance of normality. 

“Our whole thing is to reassure students that we are here, it’s a scary time. I remember four years ago coming up to college and leaving school in rural Wexford to come to Trinity in the middle of Dublin City. It’s a pretty big culture shock. So we’re having events to remind people that we’re still there for them.

“We’re saying ‘we’ve gone through what you’re going through although not quite as crazy, and it’s different’, so we’re learning and adapting to give them an outlet and keep them sane really.”

Trinity SU along with UCD, the Institute of Arts and Design Technology, the Technological University Dublin, and the RCSI have collaborated to host a week-long fresher’s event which will see artists including Soulée play live sets online for students to watch from home. 

“It’s basically a freshers ball online… we’re going to try and keep people engaged but mainly we want to give students something, it’s nowhere near where it should be but it’s the absolute best we can do. We want them to have something that looks like freshers’ week.”

The fear of house parties emerging during that week remains a concern, however. McInerney said: “speaking for Trinity, they have taken it very seriously, engaging in contracts for students to sign and if there’s a major breach then they will lose their accommodation”.

“We’re not anticipating massive house parties, what this is for is if you’re in student halls or new accommodation and you’re with your four new housemates, you’ve never met each other before… it’s aimed at pods in houses and something for students to gather around and strike up a chat.”

Short and long-term planning is underway and when freshers’ week is over the Students Union at Trinity and those all over the country will be looking at how to support students in the uncertain year ahead.

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“At the moment, we are planning for a normal year but being realistic. It’s very up in the air whether that will happen and no one knows but we’re planning as normal and as public health guidelines change, or don’t, we will alter our plans.

“But that is only for events after Christmas in second term, we’re planning for some sort of normality but if we have to change that completely, we’ll have the experience from freshers’ week to go on.”

DCU 777 DCU is one of dozens of institutions affected by changing public health regulations. Source: Sam Boal

And students at Trinity College are not alone in facing into uncertain times. Dr Claire Bohan, Student Support and Development Officer at DCU described how mental health supports will be key this year, with the university already seeing a surge in demand.

“The question you could be asking is what’s going to be the same as previous years but look, even in my office today, there are no students around, usually you have students coming in looking around campus, the gym, the library but it’s completely dead.

“There are a few souls walking around the place but really very, very few and with Level 3 in place for three weeks it has changed things, we would have expected much more life on campus. 

“You’ll hear the same from most colleges. It will be mostly online for the next three weeks  until we’re sure, and then some on-campus activity that can’t be avoided, workshops, labs, where they have to be on campus.  

But fears linger that some students will “fall through the cracks” and additional investments are being made to support student mental wellbeing. 

“Are there students who fall between the cracks? Possibly,” said Bohan. “It’s very hard to know that in an institution of any size where there are some we’re not hearing from but certainly there is engagement, more than we’ve ever had.

“Things like work placements, we’re having a virtual careers fair in October… the gym is open but restricted, pool is open but restricted, so it’s smaller numbers but open and by appointment and the availability of staff has never been better. 

This is the students’ world, it’s where they live so the support end is working and more money is being put into student support and counselling on the mental health end – so that’s been brilliant. And we’re upgrading all of our systems.

DCU witnessed a rise in the number of students seeking mental health supports through March and April when the initial Covid-19 national lockdown kicked in. 

“The numbers went up and we were expecting that and bracing ourselves for it so we are trying to reach out and keep things going, sending emails to ask how things are, and if they felt they needed somewhere and had nowhere to go that they could send me an email and I would get them to the right place. 

I would expect this year there will be serious demand for anything to do with wellbeing, mindfulness, yoga, all sorts of ways that students can take care of themselves.

Colleges and students are not alone in raising concerns around the demand on mental health supports this year. 

Earlier this month, the Department of Higher Education also recognised the need to invest in this area with a €5 million package to enhance mental health supports at third-level. 

“They have endured so much. We now must take care of students’ mental health as we have a duty of care to them,” Simon Harris said as he announced measures to support students this year. 

Throughout the summer, it was largely recognised within the second-level sector that Leaving Cert students have been significantly impacted in a way that no other second-level cohort has been in the past.

Now the attention turns to supporting those same students who are entering third-level education, as well as those who are returning to continue their studies over the coming weeks. 

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