Most students say their mental health suffered in pandemic

On average 56% of university students worldwide said their mental health suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a survey of about 17,000 students in 21 countries that was conducted for, an educational technology and textbook rental firm in the United States.

Brazil had the highest percentage saying their mental health suffered, at 76%, followed closely by the United States (75%), Canada (73%) and the United Kingdom (70%).

At 25%, Italy had the lowest number of students who said their mental health had suffered, followed by Russia (29%), China (38%) and South Korea (39%). Kenya, the only African country among the 21 countries in the survey, mirrored the global average with 56%.

According to Lila Thomas, the head of Chegg, between 20 October and 10 November 2020, her company had commissioned Yonder Consulting Limited, the London-based market research and opinion polling firm to undertake a survey on the lives, hopes and fears of university students around the world in the age of COVID and beyond.

The Global Student Survey culminated in researchers asking students about their mental health, debt, perceptions of online learning, attitudes about their countries and future job prospects.

Yonder’s researchers interviewed 16,839 university undergraduate students aged 18-21 from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy and Japan. The rest of the countries in the group were Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“Student sample sizes ranged from 500 to 1,007, while the global results represent the combined findings of the 21 countries studied,” said Thomas, who is also the director of social impact at Chegg.

Highlighting challenges that they encountered through online learning during the pandemic, on average 51% of the students around the world said their lecturers and professors know how to teach using online platforms, while 37% said they do not know how to teach online.

In this case, at 79%, China had the highest student reporting of their lecturers knowing how to teach effectively using online platforms, followed by Saudi Arabia (73%) and Malaysia (69%).

At 51%, Turkey had the highest number of students that said their lecturers were not effective at teaching online, followed by Spain (49%) and Japan (46%).

During the interviews, it emerged that most of the universities globally stopped in-person learning, as eight out of 10 students, representing an average of 82%, confirmed suspension of in-person teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while 86% of students said their universities provided online learning resources during this time, only 50% rated their universities online provision as excellent. By country, Saudi Arabia came top in this regard, with 86% of students rating their universities’ online provision as excellent, followed by China (75%). The lowest in this category were South Korea (19%), Japan (26%) and Kenya (27%).

On average, hours per week devoted to studies during the COVID-19 lockdown ranged between 27 in Mexico, Italy and Germany to 14 in Japan, 15 in Kenya and 16 in India and Turkey.

Although students worldwide appeared to be waiting for the return of in-person learning activities, there were strong indicators that they would not mind continuing with online learning if they were to pay reduced tuition fees.

“Around 65% of students across all the surveyed countries said they would rather their university offered the choice of more online learning if it meant paying lower tuition fees,” said Thomas.

According to the study, in Canada 83% of the students said they would welcome more online courses if tuition fees were to be lowered, followed by their counterparts in China (78%), Malaysia (78%), the US (76%) and Japan (75%).

Commenting on the issue, Thomas argued that it is probably time to listen to students more on issues related to paying for college. “The financial stress is now affecting a large segment of the global university student population outside of the classroom,” Thomas said.

Quoting from the report, Thomas noted that 35% of students surveyed who have a student loan said they lose sleep over it, while 21% said it makes them so anxious they have sought medical help.

Students stressed that they go to university not just to get education for its own sake but for the career benefits and professional prospects. “Jobs are the main motivation for students going to university, as the specific career they want requires a degree,” the report says.

Over three-quarters of students in emerging economies say their education is preparing them well for the job market, compared with 63% in developed economies. Asked to what extent their universities were preparing them for the job market, 87% of students in Indonesia stated their universities were preparing them well, followed by China (85%) and Brazil (81%).

Given several options to select what they considered to be the two biggest issues facing their generation, the students identified access to quality jobs, as well as the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The two options attracted over a quarter of the global student population.

But quite disturbing is that a third of the global student population (as represented in the survey) said they do not they live in an open and free society that supports diversity, the less fortunate, and gives everyone equal opportunities. At 70%, students in Brazil had the highest rating of lack of belief that they live in an equal opportunity society, followed by their counterparts in Turkey (55%) and Argentina (50%).

Responding to the statement as to what extent they agreed or disagreed about their country being a good place to live, a large segment of students from Argentina, Mexico and Brazil, alongside their counterparts from Russia and Turkey, thought that their countries were not good places to live.

In this regard, only 16% of Argentinian undergraduate students felt their country was a good place to live, a response that was the lowest of any country surveyed. According to the report, three-quarters of Argentinian students also thought their country was a worse place to live than it was five years ago, an opinion that ranked higher than in any other country polled.

As Thomas pointed out, Chegg’s survey appears more like a scorecard that details obstacles and challenges that the current university undergraduate student population is going through in their universities and countries during and probably after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel in that, despite mounting learning challenges and pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and by widening economic disparities, 56% of the students surveyed still felt optimistic and ready for future challenges in the years ahead.