2020 was a year of a change for everyone. In higher education, most European universities closed their campuses in March 2020. As expressed by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a profound impact, not only on people’s health, but also on how they learn, work and live. One of the most important challenges created by COVID-19 is how to adapt a system of education built around physical schools and how students could be supported to successfully continue their learning and studies.
Without any doubts, the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout Europe caused a substantial impact on higher education, with almost all institutions having closed their doors to face-to-face activities and replacing them with online learning practises. However, there were many more challenges, then moving to virtual environments. Among those, OECD outlines main areas in the education sector affected by COVID-19: financial, international mobilities, face-to-face delivery difficulties, study process and schedule administration, teachers’ digital capacities, etc.
Though the higher education sector in the majority of the universities is still being implemented online, however, to a smaller or greater extent they adapted to live in this new reality. The majority of higher education institutions worldwide are implementing different measures to ensure support for their students during this crisis. Below you will find some ideas on how your institution could support your students:

(1) Financial challenges and possible solutions to support students
COVID-19 affected students’ financial well-being. Some of them lost their jobs, especially those who were engaged in the service sector, which affected possibilities to pay tuition fees for studies, rent costs, etc. Some universities managed to establish Student Support Funds and provide financial support for students through donations from alumni, friends, and supporters of the university. Some universities or countries applied Vouchers schemes to students in need or ran food-bank initiatives, which was of special importance during the first months of COVID-19 outbreak for self-isolating students. Taking current situations, universities also have possibilities to update payment schedules, to provide possibilities to students, who face financial challenges, suspend tuition payment, schedule or pay it in smaller amounts during prolonged time-period.

(2) Internationalisation and mobility challenges
Without a doubt the first victim of COVID-19 that was hit hardest was (and still is) internationalisation: outgoing student mobility, outgoing and incoming staff mobilities. Though, as expressed by EUA (European university association), so far neither virtual mobilities nor the virtual international classroom, while technically feasible, have become common practice in higher education. However, due to the crisis, the European Commission allowed virtual exchange in (partial) replacement of physical exchange under the Erasmus+ mobility programme. While there is widespread agreement that virtual mobility cannot and should not replace physical mobility, there is the question of whether it can be exploited in a more systematic and strategic manner to complement physical mobility and serve as an additional option to exchange and collaboration. Blended international mobilities practises will be further supported and encouraged in the new Erasmus+ 2021-2027 period. Also, higher education institutions provide support, including the option to study remotely in the case of late arrival or quarantine periods for international students.

(3) Online learning and teaching
Pandemic brought historic opportunity to make a major leap in terms of digital take-up, as well as a general transformation of learning and teaching. Research indicates that in the future universities will continue to explore new ways of teaching and enhancing digital capacity. Transition to an online environment encouraged universities to share their learning resources, open resources platforms for wider accessibility so that more students could have access to relevant and high-quality learning resources. Several digital learning platforms to deliver lectures were explored and applied for virtual studies. Considering COVID-19 spread universities also adjusted their regular study schedules, while extending the terms for exams, final theses, enrolment to studies, etc.

(4) Psychological counselling and mentoring
Pandemic is having a profound impact, not only on how we are learning, working, and living, but also to our health. Therefore, attention to mental well-being became especially important. Majority of universities are providing online guidance on wellbeing for students. Through counselling, virtual collaboration initiatives, virtual sharing events universities are maintaining a sense of community throughout this global crisis, which helps to support student’s mental health and wellbeing and their relationships with other students and staff. The list of psychological counselling and mentoring includes also individual, group consultations, preventive seminars and classes for students and other university staff members. The engagement of Student councils, other student bodies in this process is also important, as they know the best the real needs and situation of their peers.

(5) Understand the situation: explore
Number of research on Covid-19 impact for Higher education, staff, students have been carried out by European Commission, networks representing higher education institutions, students councils, etc. which bring knowledge of what’s happening in the higher education sector. As all decisions that are being made by Ministries, responsible for education, University government bodies should be based on research based information. Also, meetings with students should be held, to have hands-on knowledge of what issues students are facing and how they are feeling, what kind of services, help and support are needed for them.

(6) Ensuring clear communication
Accessible and targeted information and advice are fundamental to supporting students during the pandemic. Presenting this in a clear and accessible manner supports students’ decision making as well as their mental health and wellbeing. All universities were regularly providing fact-checked news updates for students regarding COVID-19, self-isolation requirements, traveling restrictions, etc. The information for students was not only shared through website updates, but also newsletters were issued, information was communicated through staff members, etc.

These are some basic support mechanisms that were and still are supporting students worldwide, seeking to ensure their well-being, possibility to continue studies and reduce negative impacts of the whole COVID-19 situation.

It would be interesting to hear what practises different higher education institutions applied to support students in this difficult time. So, share your thoughts and ideas with the Star.App project consortium.