Academic Stress of Covid-19 on University Students in London and Melbourne

What's this study about?

In the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education institutions (HEIs) around the globe are united in facing what is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges for the sector over the last 50 years (Dolton, 2020). For many Western HEIs, there is an imminent burden of financial crisis due to reduced income from the low uptake of international students, coupled with sudden shifts to online learning platforms over long periods of national lockdowns (Friga, 2020). Fortunately, HEIs have been able to operate virtually, and at the very least, sustain most teaching practices through online blended styles, with a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous approaches (Jandric et al., 2020; Karalis & Raikou, 2020). However, this switch to remote teaching has also impacted university students’ levels of academic stress, due to the change in learning habits and the wider social restrictions imposed in most Western countries to manage the spread of Covid-19. In this context, academic stress refers to a negative mental or emotional state that is experienced by students due to an adverse situation or event that directly or proximally relates to their learning activities (Pajarianto, 2020).

Providing support for academic stress is challenging under these unprecedented circumstances, particularly with respect to those students in marginalised socioeconomic groups, whose stressful pre-crisis situations are being exacerbated in unanticipated ways (Pan, 2020). One contemporary at-risk group which tends to be overlooked is ‘global’ South Asian female students; the children of South Asians who were naturalised in the West during the waves of emigration between the 1950s to 1980s. The specific issues facing this group are largely unexamined either because South Asian stereotypes paint them as being resolute high-achievers with unconditional familial support, or because they are presumed to suffer from the same generalised problems as all Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students. Yet, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that HEIs must be more attentive to the differential plights of marginalised students and should not naively treat any group as exempt from care, nor consider BAME to be a monolith. ‘Global’ South Asian females in particular are caught in a transitional world between their parents’ colonial heritage and the intersectional adversities of their ethnicity and gender.

Our paper takes a comparative approach to explore the specific nature of the academic stresses faced by South Asian female students in two case studies, one at a university in London, UK, and another in Melbourne, Australia. A mix of survey and focus group data is used to understand the new challenges that these students have faced in respect of their academic learning, and the results are interpreted under Crenshaw’s (1989) intersectionality framework and Bourdieu’s (1986) theories of habitus and hysteresis. The results are markedly similar across both the Australian and UK students, in respect of their attitudes and approaches to more home-based learning activity and new blended instructional designs. The findings suggest that the excess academic stress of South Asian females during Covid-19 is centred on the collision between their primary habitus of the highly patriarchal extended family unit (Abraham, 2019), and their secondary habitus generated as educated women of colour.

The interaction of these habitus imposes additional surveillance over and by the family unit and results in weaker academic presence, motivation, and participation, in addition to elevated anxieties and social hysteresis. The manifestation of these stresses is moderated by students’ area of study, with those in the life sciences facing greater demands as women in the home, and those in social sciences being less comfortable negotiating online presence with family in the same space. These findings may have a direct impact on the possibilities for HEIs to support the academic well-being of South Asian females during Covid-19. There are also wider theoretical implications for the treatment of the ‘locus of oppression’ (Mitra-Kahn, 2012) for intersectional groups in higher education.


Dr Thomas Hiscox - School of Biological Sciences 

Dr Hiscox's recent presentation entitled 'E-Learning in the Face of a Pandemic through Students' Eyes' (SRHE Event, Technology and the Post-Pandemic University, 2020) illuminated that COVID-19 presented a unique challenge for a foundation year Biology program with 1600 students enrolled across two international campuses. He partners in this comparative investigation.