Anticipation is building for students as they embark on their latest educational adventure. For many, that has meant heading off to university. For others, it will be a local college, and some may have just returned to secondary school as they settle into the new autumn term.

The last two academic years have witnessed major interruptions as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic saw students and teachers alike having to isolate. With COVID-19 vaccinations now available to all students aged 16 and above, and everyone aged under 18 now exempt from isolating, there is hope that the 2021/22 academic year will be as close to a return to ‘normal’ as possible.

But after such huge disruptions to learning, support for learners in the coming 12 months will be more important than ever before. There are elements of social reintegration and readaptation to classroom environments that must be considered. Schools, colleges, and universities will need to ensure they offer students more access to support for potential anxiety, depression, and other unseen mental health troubles.

Here, we’ll explore how some of the UK’s top institutions are setting out their stall to ensure their learners have everything they need to succeed.

Imperial College London

With an international community of more than 10,000 undergraduates and a further 9,000 learners on postgraduate courses, Imperial College London is one of the largest in the UK. This week, it was announced as The Times’ University of the Year. The award is a result of its work in advising the government on the nature of the virus and also for its high-quality student support during the pandemic.

Change does not come cheap though, and Imperial has invested more than £7 million on transforming teaching areas. Plus, resources were provided to students who faced difficulty studying from their homes. Accommodation fees were waived, and isolating students had meals delivered and their laundry done for them.

It all adds up to a happier National Student Survey result. Students will return to campus safe in the knowledge that they have somewhere to turn if the stresses of university life become too much.

Newcastle College

Newcastle College has doubled down on its efforts to support learners. Throughout the pandemic, the college expanded its support systems with additional mental health and wellbeing resources and courses, as well as free online courses aimed at supporting those who were furloughed or made redundant by businesses forced to close.

For its own students, Newcastle College offered free access to mental fitness app Fika, something that has since been embedded into lessons and tutorials, and supports existing services on offer, such as counselling.

In August, Newcastle College University Centre was awarded £108,000 in funding to launch a digital project aimed at improving mental health awareness and support for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Nicky Turnbull, Director of Higher Education at Newcastle College Group, said: “Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of students across England suggested that their mental health and wellbeing had been negatively impacted since the start of the autumn term in 2020.

“We have a duty of care to do all that we can to focus on the mental wellbeing of all students, and formalising our mental health provision is an essential part of our ongoing strategy. We recognise that our student demographic is broad and requires a range of support to meet a spectrum of different needs.”

As the summer holidays came to a close, the College prepared to support students returning to campus with NCG’s Education Recovery Plan, recognising the difficulties that learners may have experienced throughout the pandemic, or may still face as they return to a classroom environment.

And, building on its support for learners with special educational needs and disabilities – something that was praised in the last Newcastle College Ofsted report –  brand-new Life Skills Hub was launched as the campus reopened in September. The hub provides a safe space to meet others and gain essential life skills to help with developing independence.

Sandwell College

Combining innovation and student support can throw up great challenges, but it is one Sandwell College in West Bromwich is thriving on. With its on-campus Fab Lab exploring ways to advance EdTech, it has found new ways to engage young people. In fact, more than 3,500 local people and organisations have attended demonstrations since launching in January 2021.

The pandemic saw a rise in teenagers playing video games and using augmented reality, so it is certainly a pull for new students. Add to that the college’s Study Link – a dedicated team that helps students who need support in developing their independent learning skills in literacy and numeracy – and the wider Student Services Team, which offers practical and impartial advice to learners, and you have a winning formula.

As thousands of new learners enter higher education institutions, many students will be returning to their respective colleges and universities for their second or even third year of study.

There are different sets of challenges ahead for each student, with some returning to classroom learning for the first time in 18 months. Others may find the stress and loneliness of being away from home too much to handle. But with student support and pastoral care being developed across all corners of the UK, an answer – or a shoulder to cry on – is within reach.