Sinn Féin Spokesperson for Higher and Further Education, Innovation and Science, Rose Conway-Walsh conducted a survey on the impact of online learning on students’ mental health. The results flag what is referred to in a press release as a “looming mental health crisis”; four in five respondents reported that college was negatively impacting their mental health, while over 90% struggled with loneliness, stress and feeling connected. The College Tribune spoke to Conway-Walsh about the results of the survey, and about what changes could be enacted in its wake.

When asked which groups of students she believed were most impacted by the pandemic, Conway-Walsh noted that personal issues were a major component for many students in accessing education to the full: “It could be an addiction problem, it could be mental health, it could be financial problems.” She also flagged poor connectivity problems as a major issue. She raised concerns about the plight of first year and postgraduate students. One in four first year students who answered the survey were not aware of the mental health supports and counselling available to them in their respective institution. Postgraduate students, she said, are “probably even more severely impacted in terms of the financial stress that they’re under”, as they shell out upwards of €15,000 for their education.

Rose Conway-Walsh
Rose Conway-Walsh addresses media in front of Leinster House.

We spoke about the potential measures which could be brought in to support students’ mental health. The key theme here was funding, specifically, a “significant core funding increase for the institutions of higher educations” to the tune of €60 million. There is also a need to recruit “an additional 25 psychologists” for these institutions. She then mentioned the need for flexibility and support for students in relation to assessments. 

I asked her to what degree she could influence the Minister for Higher and Further Education, Simon Harris on what he does with the survey’s findings: “We’re the lead opposition party so in that sense we can hold him accountable, but this is something that the government cannot hide away from.” Sinn Féin have tabled The Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021, which will protect student renters in areas such as refunds for rental accommodation. Whether this gets passed or not will be “a litmus test for Fianna Fáil and for Fine Gael,” Conway-Walsh said. For her, this is the most immediate way in which we can enact change for students. 

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It was discussed whether, as a member of the opposition, she felt the government had failed its students. “Yes I do,” Conway-Walsh said. In her view, “No cohort of anybody else within society could be treated in the way that students were.” She spoke to the lack of transparency with regards to returning to campus after the first lockdown; here in UCD, for example, we were led to believe we would have some in-person learning. This proved to be false, leaving some students in precarious financial situations with regards to rent. Conway-Walsh went to the heart of the issue here: “Students are used to block the gap of the chronic underfunding of educational institutions.” Her exasperation was evident: “I really really feel angry about how students have been treated and exploited in this pandemic, I think it’s unforgivable.”

Having said all of this, Conway-Walsh urged students to “Keep going”, and was praiseworthy of their perseverance throughout the pandemic: “I would also say congratulations; well done for achieving what you’ve achieved this year so far.”

Rosie Roberts Kuntz – Assistant News Editor