Editorial: College must step up for students next semester

A recent Trinity College survey shows how much its students are struggling

In Week 11 of Michaelmas Term, Trinity released the results of its survey, offering valuable insight into how students are coping with learning under the pandemic. College’s focus was on the significant majority who said they were in favour of more in-person teaching in the new year, but the respondents’ answers about their own wellbeing were arguably much more significant.

Of the 6,000 who filled out the poll, 67% said they were “a little” or “very” stressed or worried by the current situation. Additionally, just 28% said they were keeping up “reasonably well” with their studies, compared to 71% who said they were “a bit” or “significantly” behind where they felt they should be.

This is reflective of feelings many students have been having in private for weeks now. People have been, very understandably, struggling with their mental health and the workload of their courses, and feeling like they’re just about managing to tread water most of the time. The social isolation inherent to distance-learning, combined with the ever-present stigma of admitting you’re grappling with these issues, means that there’s been little acknowledgement that we’re all feeling basically the same way. If we were physically together, in tutorials and drinking coffee outside the Arts Block, we’d be able to sense the common anxiety and frustration, but stuck in our individual homes it’s easy to feel like the problem is just you.

College can and should address this problem with more in-person classes, within the bounds of public health advice. The plans to do so are a welcome move and will hopefully be more closely adhered to than comparable commitments made before the start of Michaelmas term. But there’s always going to be a limit; even as vaccines are rolled out in the new year, there will likely remain significant limitations on medium to large gatherings for much of 2021. Other measures will be necessary to safeguard students’ wellbeing.

For a start, there should be significantly more effort and resources put into taking care of students’ mental health directly. Emails from the Provost advising us to “stay well” in this “extraordinary year” are fine, but access to therapy is better. Trinity’s Student Counselling Services received more than 200 enquiries per week during October, and is simply not able to provide adequate assistance to everyone who needs it. While the service is full of wonderful people who provide invaluable help to the students they work with, it is severely limited by a lack of resources. Students are limited to just eight counselling appointments per calendar year, and there are frequently waiting periods even for those. Many of the counsellors are themselves still in training. SCS’s website says that “for longer term counselling we can refer you to external service providers”, but given “non-urgent” patients frequently wait multiple years for appointments with HSE mental health services and private providers are prohibitively expensive, this isn’t enough. College has a duty of care to its students and should significantly increase its investment in this service.

The government should also boost funding for student mental health. The €5 million allocated in August was welcome, but this was a once-off grant that translates to €21 per third-level student in Ireland. A vastly increased budget in the long-term is needed, not to mention the decades-overdue investment in general public mental health services.

More generally though, there needs to be a cultural shift in how College views its duties to students. More than a third of Trinity’s student body signed petitions last April calling for a “no-detriment” policy for summer assessments, reasonably pointing out that they could not be expected to perform as normal under pandemic conditions. But the University Council categorically rejected the proposal, citing their commitment to “preserving the integrity of the academic qualifications Trinity students can expect to hold on graduation”. Simply put, College views the reputation and prestige attached to its name as more important than our mental health and will always act accordingly. 

This arrangement is framed like it’s undertaken with students in mind, but that line of reasoning simply isn’t credible when it’s being used to shout down the voices of students themselves. Even aside from the absurdity of the notion that a couple of semesters of slightly easier exams in them middle of a once-in-a-century crisis would do noticeable damage to Trinity’s global brand, this is a decision students should be allowed to make for themselves. It’s shameful that College’s deep-rooted academic elitism made it so ignorant to the needs of its community.

The “no-detriment” petitions were circulated when Ireland had been under Covid-related restrictions for just one month. It has now been eleven months. As we know from our experiences and from the results of the survey, it gets more difficult over time, not easier.

Now more than ever, it’s time for Trinity to fundamentally reassess what it considers important. Always, but especially in a pandemic, the welfare of students should be at the centre of everything a university does and every decision it makes. That doesn’t seem to be true right now as Michaelmas Term comes to a close. College must do better in the new year ahead.