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10th September 2021

Suzanne Rab on how law students coped during the pandemic

In 2021, I embarked on a study of the perceptions, experiences and viewpoints of  UK law students in the time of COVID-19, and would like to share my findings with Finito World readers.  Some of the results of the study are not unsurprising and echo findings in other education contexts.  The findings are grim in places, and include the impact on student mental health; the perception of 2020/21 being a ‘lost year’ for undergraduates studying at the height of the pandemic; and student dissatisfaction with the reduced socialisation.  The role of technology in facilitating learning, brought many benefits but was not without its challenges.

Unsurprisingly, students expressed fears about the infection and its impact on their studies.   The fear of illness was interesting as it centred much more on the negative impact of being stuck in a tiny room in isolation than fear of the disease itself, which was logical given the age and risk profile of those students studying at undergraduate level.

No student discounted the significance of the health crisis or said that they did not adhere to the imposed lockdown and social distancing regulations.  The impact of the pandemic on mental health was recounted by all students.  This is not surprising and consistent with other studies, such as those conducted by Al-Rabiaah in 2020, and Khalid in 2016, which link epidemics with fear and high levels of psychological distress. This pandemic was especially stressful in that it has occurred suddenly and under circumstances where the participants have little control.  Here then are some of my findings, with some anonymised quotations from the students themselves, detailing for readers relevant experience. 

The study was conducted in March -May 2021 and developed as a pilot to inform more detailed qualitative research, based on ‘free form’ responses to a questionnaire.  The questions included: (1) what were students’ expectations of studying before COVID-19; (2) what were students’ experiences of studying through COVID-19; (3) what were students’ concerns about studying through COVID-19; (4) what was students’ use of technology; (5) what were students’ perceptions on the impact on employment and career progression; (6) what were students’ perspectives on how higher education institutions can best support students studying remotely  Participants in the study were students studying for a qualification in law (or a subject with a law-related module component) at four higher education institutions in the UK.  The institutions reflected a range of organisational formats including traditional campus-based and one which offers exclusively online tuition as well as mixed online and face-to-face courses.  

Students have shown admirable resilience

Pandemics tends to present a risk of students withdrawing from their studies altogether.  The good news is that there was no overwhelming evidence among the small sample reviewed that students were disengaged with their studies and students showed resilience in dealing with the situation.  One student did however note that they had decided to defer – though in this instance, had done so optimistically.

The results also indicate that students are divided on the highs and lows of studying in the pandemic.  Accepting the sombre context of the study, students were able to appreciate some positive elements.  Some were grateful for their universities providing agile online support, compensatory tuition or additional social activities.  Others illustrated an ability to focus on other dimensions of university life particularly peer collegiality, and they focused on fostering a sense of community during a difficult time.  Some reflected on greater contact with family; efficiencies from remote studying; and an affirmation that studying in the pandemic was an achievement in itself. 

The in-person experience is missed

On the other hand, there were some real lows – most regretted the lack of a full university experience. This was especially acute where students were told by others who had studied in more normalised times that they were missing out. This in turn seemed to occur along two lines – the lack of freshers’ experiences which students had been looking forward to, and the imperfect experience of remote learning. Many of course experienced both of these anxieties simultaneously. 

“Online teams meetings work well but there is no substitute for meeting a tutor in person and having a lively discussion.

“I was expecting / hoping to meet more students and tutors face to face in tutorials and be able to have discussions with them in tutorials and outside of tutorials.  The pandemic resulted in all contact being either audio only (or in some students’ cases, text only) with no use of the video facility.”

Many students put community before self

Throughout my research, the students’ own value and belief systems were apparent.  Many told me that they had engaged in pro bono activities, as part of a recognition of the need to put others before self.  I often found myself impressed by their courage.  

Remote-learning was largely viewed positively, but not universally and the digital divide is a problem

Technology as a learning tool was largely viewed positively.  Students recounted their investments in technology to deal with the pandemic as well as online support from their institutions.  This issue in turn raises a question of the digital divide where some students may not have adequate financial resources to access technology.  While online learning has developed in ways which may have been scarcely credible pre-pandemic, some students however expressed preference for in-person examinations.  The role of technology outside the curriculum was also significant as a partial substitute for student-led initiatives to achieve a sense of community and maintain their social networks. 

“While studying through COVID-19 I have been concerned about my mental health while also dealing with the mental fatigue of having to work and study from the same space for long periods of time with limited outdoor access.”

Many students are concerned for their futures

In spite of the point above, many students voiced concerns about the impact of the pandemic on achievement in examinations linked to the online environment.  Even so there was a repeatedly expressed silver lining here: many students saw the experience as fostering skills that would be transferable to the workplace.  Some felt it would develop resilience, others that it engendered new skills or interests. 

Many students are worried about the availability of suitable work experience and opportunities

A recurrent theme was the impact on work experience opportunities caused by limited access to networking opportunities, the reduced benefits of online internships and more general limitations of interacting online.  Of course, this was also linked to the impact on students of difficulties in the global economy, leading to a smaller pool of jobs than has been typical.  Even so, the experience of post-graduate students was largely neutral on career progression for the simple reason that such students tend to embark on study more for the intellectual content of the course than for purely employability reasons.  In such instances, the qualification was an end in itself.

“Further, if this had been my undergraduate degree, when the “experience” was more important to me, I would have been disappointed to have been part of the generation that attended university during the pandemic.”

The quality of institutional response was mixed 

Opinions were divided as to how well institutions supported students through the pandemic.  Prompt interventions in providing online support and continuity were applauded and students praised their tutors in dealing with the situation and adapting their delivery and materials.  Where criticism was voiced, it was more targeted at the faculty or institutional level.  This manifested variously as a need for greater sensitivity to mental health concerns and complaints about a lack of effective communication. 

Value for money is a primary concern

While most students demonstrated a philosophical approach to the situation one respondent highlighted a concern with the level of university fees.  Although this was not addressed directly in the written responses I observe that the issue of paying for rent for unused accommodation has been very galling for many students.  There is a belief that students didn’t receive value for money and this imbalance will affect those who are least able to pay:

“While understanding that the costs of running the university largely virtually are high, it is nonetheless frustrating that university fees remain the same/are rising when students are unable to make full use of the facilities and may not even be on campus for much of the time. This will also be the harshest on those who are already suffering more from the pandemic itself.”

There’s a lot we can do to improve the system

As far as I am aware this is the first qualitative study in the time of COVID-19 that has been undertaken involving law students.  Throughout the study it became clear to me that while lawyers tend to develop throughout their careers to a remarkable extent, a lot of this resilience is developed in higher education environments.  This raises the stakes and makes me surer than ever of what we need to do to protect students and ensure the future health of the next generation of lawyers and our profession, now and for the longer term.   

I would like to hope that this modest study may serve as a catalyst to inform research that can contribute to the design of student support strategies and provide a more effective learning environment during and after a time of crisis.  To facilitate better understanding to inform evolving strategies, it is important to have a comprehensive insight into students’ dynamic perceptions, feelings and experiences in a crisis.  This study could also be an incentive to education institutions and the academic community to undertake further research in this area in the UK and elsewhere.

A series of recommendations, emerging from students’ own responses are outlined in the box opposite.

Box:  How to Improve Law Student Experience in a post-COVID World

Provide effective online support

“Replicate what [Institution] is doing, especially with [online] library access.” 

“I think it’s best to make sure everything required is online.”

Institutional flexibility in assessment methods

“I think [Institution] was very supportive in providing [assignment] extensions. I never used one but it gave me confidence that it is there if needed.”

“Answer emails quicker, as I missed many assignments and an [examined assessment] due to being overlooked at one of the worst points of my life.”

Support students’ mental health

“Higher education institutions can make it known to students what kind of support is available so that students are aware of the support while they are in difficulty rather than when they are in crisis.”

Greater sensitivity to special needs including disabilities and carer responsibilities

“The only thing I feel is a shame is that the [final examinations] were cancelled.  I felt there was no need to do that as we had plenty of time to complete them. I was working from home, trying to home school 3 children, one of whom has special needs and none of whom have English as there first language.”

Assistance with tuition fees that targets genuine need and a long-term view of investment in learning and development

“If possible, financial support for those who require it.”

Greater preventative measures including planning, response strategies and preparedness in relation to health crises

“The uncertainty experienced by students would be well remedied by having events to look forward to: I think the lack of structure and non-academic events to look forward to has been one of the failures of universities generally.”

Consideration of the needs of international students with remote-learning better reflecting disparities caused by time-zones

“Prominent examples [of lows] would be having to return home instead of staying at university accommodation due to governmental regulations.”

Greater opportunities for face-to-face contact where permitted by public health regulations

“Have as much face-to-face time as possible and perhaps once a week drop in sessions where students can talk about things that they need help with rather than having to wait for emails.”

Greater coordination of centralised and decentralised institutional communications

“The best way universities can support remote study is good communication.”

“Communication from “the top” has been poor.  It would have been better for those at “the top” to have held a meeting earlier on with students in order to set out their views and thereby help to steer the ship in the right direction, including by preventing any misinformation from spreading.”

Student engagement in decision-making which affects them  

“It is also important for HE institutions to regularly check in with students as for many institutions this form of working is new and it is more useful to catch any gaps in their approach early, but it also allows students to feel more in control of their experience as they have a say in next steps.”

If you want to know more about these summary findings, and further research projects in the area, as well as upcoming publications, contact Suzanne Rab (E.; M. +44(0) 7557 046522).

Professor Suzanne Rabis a barrister at Serle Court Chambers specialising in regulatory and education law. She is Professor of Commercial Law at Brunel University London, a law lecturer at the University of Oxford, and Visiting Professor at Imperial College London.  She is an expert panel member of the UK Regulators Network, a member of Council of the Regulatory Policy Institute and a non-executive director of the Legal Aid Agency.

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