Students’ ‘sense of belonging’ at University of Galway collapsed during Covid


From this week's Galway City Tribune

From this week's Galway City Tribune

Students’ ‘sense of belonging’ at University of Galway collapsed during Covid Students’ ‘sense of belonging’ at University of Galway collapsed during Covid

Bradley Bytes – a sort of political column with Dara Bradley

It’s hardly surprising that Galway’s third level students struggled to cope during Covid-19 lockdowns. Everyone did.

But analysis of just how mentally draining students found the pandemic has produced shocking results.

A University of Galway (formerly NUIG) Student Experience Survey highlights students’ poor mental health during the early months of lockdown.

And this negative experience has resulted in negative perceptions of the university, too. Worryingly for Ollscoil na Gaillimhe, the percentage of students who would recommend NUIG, as it was then known, plummeted compared with surveys taken prior to Covid-19.

Although other higher education institutes faced similar trends, members of the Governing Body “expressed serious concerns” with the survey findings.

They “highlighted the critical importance . . . of addressing the issues raised”, according to minutes of meetings of Údarás na hOllscoile released to Bradley Bytes under Freedom of Information (FOI).

And what exactly were those issues? Students were depressed, anxious and stressed.

At a Governing Body meeting last April, Director of Student Services, John Hannon, warned that “rates of Depression, Anxiety and Stress (DASS) are particularly concerning”.  There were year-on-year increases with the most dramatic rise being in November 2020.

Members were told that 82% of students surveyed reported being stressed, anxious and worried about their ability to cope in semester one of the 2021/2022 academic year.

Over three-quarters reported that socialising and interaction with peers outside university, and engagement and interaction with peers inside the university, had been negatively impacted.

Covid-19 wasn’t the only problem for students. The cyber-attack on NUIG’s computer systems also hit hard.

Members of the Governing Body were told that the impact on the learning experience from the cyber-attack “resulted in 91% of students surveyed experiencing difficulties”.

Some 70% reported they had trouble “keeping motivated to complete work”.

Most worrying for bean-counters and other decision-makers at Ollscoil na Gaillimhe was that students “reported a significant decrease in their sense of belonging and affiliation with” NUIG. This was down from 58% pre-pandemic to 42% in 2022.

There was also a sharp drop in the number of students who would recommend NUIG to others, from 82% pre-pandemic to 56% in 2022.

A lengthy discussion followed. The then Students’ Union President “expressed concern at length” about the proposed full return to in-person lectures, and lecture recordings not being made available online.

President, Professor Ciaran Ó hÓgartaigh, said he had worked in higher education for 30 years and was a faculty member in five universities in three countries. NUIG was the university “where colleagues gave most attention to students’ needs”, he said.

Vice-President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Helen Maher, warned the “potential risk of inequality” for students if there was a “two tier ‘off-campus’ versus ‘on-campus’ educational experience”.

The university’s name has since changed at a cost of at least €500,000. But the survey results suggest more non-cosmetic change is needed, too, to improve students’ experience of the University of Galway.

(Photo: President of UG, Professor Ciaran Ó hÓgartaigh, stated that, having worked in higher education for 30 years, he believed it was the university “where colleagues gave most attention to students’ needs”).
This is a shortened preview version of this column. For more Bradley Bytes, see the October 28 edition of the Galway City Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.

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