With French universities in limbo amid the latest resurgence in Covid-19 infections, alarm bells are ringing over the psychological and academic consequences of months of lockdowns, curfews and online teaching for students holed up in cramped dwellings many can ill afford.
Acknowledging the plight of university students during one of his numerous televised addresses, French President Emmanuel Macron said back in October that it was “hard to be 20 in 2020”.
Macron had just announced a 9pm curfew in key cities to stem a resurgence in Covid-19 infections. He stressed the “terrible sacrifice” for youths anguished by disrupted studies and uncertain job prospects, and deprived of revelling.
Things would get harder still, the first curfew soon giving way to a second nationwide lockdown, then another curfew at 8pm and, as of Saturday, at 6pm.
With the government now scrambling to contain a new, more contagious strain of the virus, plans to reopen the country’s universities are effectively in limbo for all but a small section of students.
And for students learning remotely in cramped accommodation, or back at their parents’ homes for want of alternatives, 2021 is already looking depressingly familiar.
‘Rooms no larger than prison cells’
Long a neglected aspect of the pandemic, the distress experienced by many French students made shocking headlines this week after a student leapt from the fourth floor of his university residence in the eastern city of Lyon. He remains in critical condition.
Days later, a fellow student at a nearby university was restrained after threatening to jump out of her window.
While it is too early to determine the cause of the attempted suicides, students, teachers and health workers have long been warning about the emotional and academic impacts of prolonged remote learning.
Writing on Facebook shortly after the first suicide attempt, Romain Narbonnet, a classmate of the student in hospital, stressed the “social isolation” experienced by students. He also questioned the decision to keep schools open while shutting down universities.
“We are holed up 24/7 in rooms no larger than prison cells […]. How much can a student endure?” Narbonnet asked. “It is vital to keep schools open, but somehow universities and students are of secondary importance. The truth is, we’ve been left by the wayside.”
Amid mounting pressure, France’s government has agreed only to let a small number of the most vulnerable students back into campuses – a measure universities are struggling to put in place with staff already overstretched.
On Monday, Frédérique Vidal, the higher education minister, visited a university in Cergy-Pontoise, northwest of Paris, where a first batch of 100 students – out of the university’s 25,000 – were allowed back. She was promptly challenged by teachers worried about those left behind.
“If I pick 10 out of my 400 students, how am I going to explain to the other 390 why they cannot come back?” asked one professor.
“My students were in tears behind their screens during oral exams, I’ve never faced anything like this,” added another. “It’s unbearable that I can do nothing for them.”
All were dismayed by Vidal’s reply.
“Intermingling is the problem,” the minister argued. “The trouble is not giving classes in lecture halls, but the student who goes for a coffee break, the sweet left on a table or the sandwich with friends at the cafeteria.”
The sweet that broke the camel’s back
Like a pinch of salt rubbed into an open wound, the “sweet left on a table” quip spread widely on social media as the hushed anguish of students boiled over into open rage. Many saw it as indicative of the contempt with which they have been treated throughout the pandemic – first singled out as virus-spreaders and then confined to the solitude of their rooms, even as schools are kept open to ensure parents can return to work.
“It wasn’t so long ago that we were being blamed for the spread of the pandemic. Now we are treated like children who cannot resist picking up a sweet on a table,” read an open letter penned by several students and posted on Twitter with the hashtag #GhostStudents.
“After months of the pandemic, it seems the rationale for keeping universities shut rests on a collective inability to eat a sandwich properly,” the letter added.
Using the same hashtag, students in the southern city of Montpellier also set up an Instagram account for people to voice their experiences and frustrations.
“Every one of your words infantilises me, every one of your insinuations casts me as irresponsible,” wrote one student in a message addressed to Macron and his government. “Where people see a partygoer, I see only a desperate, overwhelmed student who knows not how to protect her mental health.”
Foreign students especially vulnerable
In a study carried out in the wake of France’s first nationwide lockdown, the state-appointed National Observatory of Student Life (OVE) noted a 50 percent increase in the number of students presenting “signs of psychological distress”.
“It’s very rare to register that big an increase, and one can only assume that the situation has worsened considerably since then,” said the observatory’s director, Feres Belghith, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Belghith said women, foreign students and those experiencing financial hardship were disproportionately affected.
“The pandemic has proved especially challenging for foreign students deprived of the financial and psychological support of their families,” he explained, noting that – even at the best of times – university was both a thrilling and challenging experience for young adults.
While already alarming, the results of the OVE study reflected the concerns and anxieties of a student population that “had at least experienced university socialisation and campus life prior to the lockdown,” Beghith cautioned, warning of a potential for greater damage to first-year students who enrolled last autumn.
He added: “It is likely that the psychological impact of the pandemic will be greater for the newcomers who have had practically no real contact with their fellow students,” other than on Zoom or other online platforms.
‘Breach of equality’
In higher education as in other fields, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, some of them specific to the French model. Thus, while students are barred from university campuses, their peers attending so-called “prépas” (or prepatory) classes – the traditional path towards enrolling in one of France’s elite grande écoles – face no such restrictions.
“This breach of equality appears to trouble neither the [higher education] minister nor the prime minister,” wrote French daily Le Monde in a scathing editorial on Saturday, noting that Prime Minister Jean Castex had “not one word for higher education” in his wide-ranging press conference on pandemic measures last week.
The protracted closure of universities has left many students wondering whether they will be able to complete their studies – and whether their degrees will be devalued.
According to a survey of over 6,000 undergraduate students, conducted by professors at the University of Aix-Marseille, more than two-thirds of respondents said online classes were negatively affecting their ability to concentrate, learn and work. The authors of the study, who published their findings last month on The Conversation, said just under half of students surveyed felt their degrees would be worth less as a result of the pandemic.
Adding to the widespread anxiety, midterm exams at the start of January were severely disrupted at several universities across the country due to online platforms crashing. Other technical incidents, including tablet shortages and Wi-Fi network congestion, were reported at a handful of universities that chose to hold exams in situ.
Le Monde also reported cases of students attending exams despite being infected with Covid-19, fearing they would not be offered later sessions.
Pressure on government
Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, left-wing lawmaker Karine Lebon urged the government to step up measures to help students in psychological and financial distress.
“Students have been forgotten in the pandemic, even as they struggle with extraordinary isolation,” Lebon told the lower-house National Assembly, calling on Vidal to expand subsidised meals and other financial support measures.
The next day, Green party Senator Monique de Marco warned the upper chamber of the “dramatic consequences” of students’ protracted isolation and lack of social life. She advocated a slew of urgent measures, including suspending rent payments and strengthening psychological support.
Prime Minister Castex sought to address their concerns at a press conference on Thursday, stressing that the hardship felt by students was a “major preoccupation of the government”.
Speaking after him, Vidal promised to double the number of psychologists available at French universities. She said first-year students would begin returning to university in “small groups” starting on January 25.
The prime minister was due to host university and student representatives for talks on Friday. Student unions have already called for a nationwide day of protests on January 20 to call for the reopening of university campuses.