The sudden dissolution of the university campus: Where do students get support from?

Rille Raaper, Chris Brown, Anna Llewellyn


There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a global crisis in higher education. This crisis is particularly evident in British universities that rely heavily on international student tuition fees and where the loss in student numbers is likely to result in a significant reduction in university income. It is therefore unsurprising that the relentless recruitment of international students, the chaos around A level algorithm and uncapped admissions, and the shift to full- or part-time online teaching are all mixed up in conversations about the survival of British universities. While most debates question the future of higher education, and fairly so in a current uncertain climate, we want to stop for a moment to reflect on what happened to students when the university campuses suddenly dissolved into ad hoc online learning environments during the spring 2020 of the Covid-19 crisis? We are particularly interested in understanding support that was available to students from different socio-economic backgrounds, and how the crisis like the Covid-19 can enforce (or perhaps in some cases even challenge) these existing inequalities.

Like Hannah Arendt, we like to approach societal crisis as being at once both destructive and productive: they dissolve but also re-make human communities. In the case of current pandemic, it was the physical campus that became (temporarily?) dissolved. It is known that many students in the UK and beyond were abruptly asked to leave the campus as part of the universities’ response plan to Covid-19. Those who remained lived in various levels of lockdown in their student residencies. It can be expected that such changes to their physical and social environment had a significant effect on learning, raising issues around routine and self-discipline, mental/physical wellbeing, study motivation and feelings of isolation.

However, any crisis offers an opportunity to pause and reimagine educational practices. Also influenced by Arendt, Norberg (2011) has vividly argued that every crisis raises the ultimate question of: “what community or form of “human living-together” is possible when its (potential) members no longer have anything [physically] in common?”. With this project we are particularly interested in understanding the networks students form to support their academic studies and wellbeing when the university campus as a physical place has been suddenly suspended. We are also alert to any educational disadvantages that are likely to emerge from the new situation. For example, the Universities UK has raised concerns about the implications of the Covid-19 on widening participation by arguing that disadvantaged students are likely “to suffer from prolonged absence from more traditional support”. Interestingly, the recent A level crisis further indicated how the new policy regimes, e.g. the initially applied Ofqual exam results algorithm, can further disadvantage young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and that already at the point of access to higher education.

While it is clear that the pandemic can hugely disrupt widening participation attempts and create further disadvantages in higher education, it would be naïve to assume that pre-Covid university campuses were ideal places to study and live in. Recent research (i.e. see Hope and Quinlan, and Rubin and Wright) has clearly shown that disadvantaged students were already less likely to feel at ‘home’ on campus and interact with traditional support available. It is essential therefore that we question how the sudden dissolution of the campus has influenced student support. For example, who are the key individuals, groups and services that students interact with to support their university studies? It is likely that there is an interaction between formal support provided by universities (e.g. through course teams and support services), and peer networks and families.  

To address these problems, we have designed a research project that aims to explore undergraduate student support during the Covid-19 crisis. As this is currently an unfunded project and in a process of development, we would very much appreciate your feedback and any thoughts.

The project takes a social network approach where we define social networks as the set of relevant actors connected to each other by one or more relations. Recent research, including our own (see Brown; Raaper and Brown) has argued that strong networks can create more potent opportunities to tackle challenging issues. In the age of digital capitalism, however, such networked communities are not necessarily confined to a particular place but can stretch out geographically/socially. Various technological changes have caused a shift from place-based interactions to person-to-person connectivity resulting in what Wellman (2001) terms as “networked individualism”.

In terms of tracing support networks, the first stage of the project includes one-to-one interviews with undergraduate students from one Russell Group university in England. We are currently in a process of recruiting and interviewing students. We are also considering expanding the data collection to a university with a different socio-historic remit to produce a richer dataset. This ego-centric approach to networks (i.e. one that places the individual at the centre of the analysis of a set of relationships) helps us map the initial actors that individual students engage for academic and wellbeing support. The second stage of the project aims to develop a larger scale social network-based survey using interview findings, in order to trace student support networks more widely based on a larger cohort of undergraduate students.

We want to conclude with some food for thought that have emerged from the initial interviews, and hope that these questions can serve as discussion points for further dialogue:

  • What is the role of friendship groups in student support? Are these course-specific or reach beyond? How do students keep in touch with friends?
  • What is the role of family members with higher education in student support? What (if anything) can compensate this for first generation students?
  • What elements make up the university campus? The apparent role of many places, i.e. library, university cafes, students’ union, department study spaces in student support.
  • What are the social pressures that are associated with studying/living on university campuses? Can off-campus education help to overcome these?

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

Rille Raaper is Assistant Professor in Education at Durham University. Rille’s research interests and experience lie in the sociology of higher education.

Chris Brown is Professor in Education at Durham University. Chris is seeking to drive forward the notion of Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) as a means to promote the collaborative learning of educators.

Anna Llewellyn is an Assistant Professor in Education at Durham University, whose research sits at the nexus of education, sociology, and cultural studies.

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