Universities are buzzing cultural hubs that bring students together from nations around the world for higher education. College campuses used to be lively places where students lived and attended classes, visited the student bar, or enjoyed coffee and lunch with their friends in the canteen. But when Covid-19 hit, third level institutions across Ireland were forced to shut their doors and students were encouraged to return home, leaving them with a sense of uncertainty.

Universities and colleges across the country progressed onto online learning, with many students completing their degree through difficult and unprecedented circumstances. 

When the 2020/2021 academic year commenced, many third-level institutions felt it was unsafe for students to return to on-campus classes in a high capacity and risk public health guidelines. In response, they concluded on continuing into the first semester of the new academic year with a mix of blended learning.

However, due to the worsening situation of the pandemic and the rise of Covid-19 cases into the winter months, many institutions decided that classes would be held primarily online, and on-campus activity was to be immediately suspended.

Ultimately, universities and colleges still felt it was still unsafe to bring students back to campus and decided that the full academic year would remain online, with only some practical classes taking place on-campus.

More than one year after the country entered a state of lockdown, Taoiseach Michael Martin announced on March 30, that level 5 restrictions will continue until May or June. However, there will be adjustments to travel restrictions, along with a phased reopening of the country.

But as the good weather and the long evenings begin to kick in, it appears Covid-19 restrictions are becoming harder and harder to abide by, as groups of friends and families are gathering in large crowds despite Covid rules. 

The past year has taken a mental, physical and economic toll on the country and its education sector. The Coronavirus plunged universities into a funding crisis as it decimated their revenue streams, from the collapse of international student fee income, rental on-campus accommodation and commercial revenues. 

But the Coronavirus has had a much more significant effect on universities and their students, as the lockdown, isolation and anxiety of a global pandemic created a surge in mental health problems.

As third-level students have spent the last year re-adjusting their lives, from moving back home with their parents to unprecedently and unexpectedly completing a year of their education online, without stepping foot on campus for the 2020/2021 academic year. It has been an isolating year and students have been dealt a difficult card from Covid-19, but like others around the world, they simply just had to accept it. 

Michelle Cullen, who is in her final year of a 3-year course at DCU said: “In reality, we have had half of our whole college experience online.

“We have missed out on a lot of socialising and practical experiences that could have benefitted our careers. 

“Having college online does take away most of the fun elements of college life. There are no coffee breaks with your friends, no events, no drinks out, it’s all just learning online from your bedroom. 

“This isn’t quite the wild college experience you imagine”, said Cullen. 

Many students have been voicing their grievances on social media about how they have been treated and neglected during the pandemic. With one Twitter user posting: “Can I just say that if college students are put on the back burner yet again and are not allowed back on campus next semester, I am going to riot. 

“Third level education is just as important as second or first level. Why do they keep pretending that online college is working?”

Kinga Piotrowska, a final year student from DCU said, that the hardest part of completing a degree online during a national lockdown, is the inability to escape from the stress and pressure of assignments and deadlines. 

“You don’t have the distractions of going out after a lecture with your friends for a few drinks, for food or even just meeting up with them on the weekend, so that you could do the hard work during the week and then have a few days off to breath. 

“We don’t have that anymore. So it’s made everything really difficult and really strange, and mental health has been affected because there’s no downtime with friends, it’s just work, work, work”, said Piotrowska. 

She continued to say that college is about so much more than attending lectures, studying and getting good grades. “It’s much more about socialising, making friends, practising what you learned in practical lectures, which we didn’t have. 

“I feel like I got half of a degree because I didn’t get to experience the other side of college and I don’t think that was considered at all.”