COVID-19 has adversely affected students and the academic community across the European Union. Sadly, the response to this crisis has too often lacked a pan-European approach. We, the European Democrat Students (EDS), on behalf of students across Europe, have identified five areas where students are particularly affected and urgently call for maximum European co-operation therein. First, challenges relating to their studies, second; problems with their finances, third; challenges to their health, fourth; problems relating to their accommodation, and fifth; we see a chance for this crisis to allow Europe to take full advantage of its student population, to this end, our final area relates to opportunities in volunteering.
Following the Austrian example, the introduction of a neutral semester can ensure students relying on student grants to not drop out of their programs. Essentially, the current semester should not be assessed or to be a requirement for the support in student grants. This means that students would not need proof of study success for the ongoing semester to apply for or confirm already received grants and scholarships. Additionally, an extension of their entitlement period by one semester and the possibility of repeating a semester free of charge with no repercussions should be made possible, if needed. Any deadlines, e.g. for the admission to a subsequent Master’s programme, should be extended.
It is clear, now more than ever, investment in digitalising higher education should be made and online classes should be organised wherever possible. Courses should be taught on cross platform software so that they can become more accessible. To ensure the quality of courses, active participation should be encouraged in online classes and students should be asked for feedback during online studying. Since no student can study without the internet and necessary technological devices, free WIFI should be provided to all students and tablets or computers for students who have none and ought to for studying. Students must also have access to online libraries, or at least a scan-on-demand option for academic resources to be able to study. The provision of Assistance and help needs to be continued by adapting all student services to telecommunication, e.g. by introducing a telephone line for the online library or admissions office.
One of the biggest challenges for higher education institutions (HEIs) is the format and planning of online examination. Examinations should be held within the academic year and solutions found for exams with mandatory physical attendance. Additionally, more oral exams should take place and defending a thesis via online live sessions should be made possible. It is advisable to give more importance to parts of curriculum that were taught before the crisis in the exam. Furthermore, there should be a possibility of postponing the exam periods of this academic year to summer or autumn semester 2020 if no alternative is possible without impacting graduation deadlines. Wherever possible, commencement of professional practice should be postponed. In health and medical studies, volunteering in corona crisis could count as part of the overall practical hours needed for qualification.
Without academic research, a way out of the current crisis would be inconceivable. We therefore urge that deadlines and modifications for research proposals are made more flexible if there is hindrance caused by the pandemic. Most importantly, setbacks caused by COVID-19 should not influence research funding, contracts or negatively impact working positions and the pay checks of PhD students, researchers and tenure lecturers.
The pandemic has also impacted student finances. Student fees are often calculated according to special equipment or facilities used. Thus, where fees are higher and equipment is unusable due to COVID-19, they must be reduced and the fee payment deadlines revisited. The responsible authorities in member states should also make sure all scholarships and grants remain paid, despite the virus. This crisis, likely to last for some years, means that all effort must be made to secure students from any additional financial burden and therefore student loan interest and inflation rates must be fixed. It is perhaps also prudent to consider freezing the loan repayments until it is economically appropriate. Another possibility is to provide financial aid for students struggling with income. All student employment contracts at HEIs must be protected from suspension or termination. HEIs, governments and the Commission could also encourage donation campaigns, to those students most in need. In essence, however, they must make every effort to ensure that basic human dignity is respected, despite the crisis, so that no student is left hungry or destitute.
We cannot however, in the absence of a vaccine or drug capable of dealing with COVID-19, simply go back to “life as it was” and must learn to live alongside the virus. Accordingly, we must practice good hygiene, meaning that HEIs must do regular disinfections of the campus, provide hand sanitation stations and practice maximum social distancing. Governments and higher education authorities should also work to provide all students with, mental health services, should they be necessary, and provide increased helpline services and support to students in abusive households. Local authorities must work on providing a support framework for students, should they be incapacitated by the virus.
Unfortunately, some students have been evicted from their student accommodation due to COVID-19. Also, a great number of students face immense financial problems because of COVID-19. Governments and HEIs should thus provide specific emergency funds to help students pay their rent or at least postpone their instalments. Moreover, there should be a moratorium on rent to those students who, due to coronavirus, can no longer use their accommodation or pay their rent. For some exchange and international students the crisis has left them unable to go home and they are now in desperate need of help so they depend on good transnational crisis management.
Finally, many students have volunteered to help in the fight against COVID-19, for which they should receive recognition. In the UK for example, over 24,000 final year medical students are helping the National Health Service. All students, who volunteer, should receive a confirmation of service from the respective volunteering organisation. Where possible, HEIs should authorise recognition of practice equivalent to volunteered hours or students should be ECTS credited. Moreover, students who volunteer could be granted any other suitable alternative, upon proof of their service, to further incentivise volunteering.
Therefore, we call upon respective HEIs, Member States and the European Commission to:
- Introduce a neutral semester and if needed, allow for the possibility to repeat a semester free of charge. Any exams for this semester should be either held within this year or be postponed, if possible. Additionally, any professional practice due to start this semester should either be postponed or be undertaken with a suitable alternative;
- Invest in a comprehensive, student friendly, digitalization of higher education, ensuring the quality of teaching and provision of general student services is maintained;
- Protect all student employment at HEIs, research funding and increase the flexibility of research proposals;
- Ensure students are supported financially;
- Ensure that all HEI and student facilities follow all necessary protocols of good hygiene;
- Increase the availability of mental health support to students and ensure students from abusive households have ready access to this or any other necessary support;
- Repatriate exchange and international students or, should they stay abroad, ensure that their basic needs are met;
- Recognize all student volunteers.