Student researchers find a low sense of well-being, but relatively high institutional trust, among peers in pandemic

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi’s MPP and MIA class conducts survey of students around the world.

A group of 11 student researchers at the Hertie School surveyed fellow students around the world about their experiences with the pandemic as part of Reason, Trust, and the Coronavirus, a fall 2020 course led by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Professor of Democracy Studies.

Half of those surveyed said they felt a low sense of general well-being due to the pandemic, the Master of Public Policy (MPP) and Master of International Affairs (MIA) students found in the COVID-19  University Stress Test (CUST), which took place over two weeks starting October 20. Nevertheless, the majority of students polled expressed relatively high levels of institutional trust in their countries of residence during the pandemic – and a similar share had the same view of how their universities had handled the situation.

The results are based on 364 responses from students living in 26 countries around the world, contacted primarily through social media and university mailing lists. Half of the students were from the Hertie School and the other half were affiliated with a range of other universities, including but not limited to CIVICA partner schools like Sciences Po in Paris and Bocconi in Milan.

“For most of us, this was the first time doing research of this sort, and it was quite exciting,” said said Alexandru Maftei, a second-year MPP student.  “We had to get to know each other and learn how to work together as a group, so the professor really made sure that we spent time doing that at the beginning.”

The students had to agree on the contents of the survey — from the number and wording of questions to the scales for rating them, as well as on the scope of the sample, opting for university students in English-speaking programmes. They used the World Values Survey, the Edelman Trust Barometer and the Perceived Stress Scale assessment tool as models for formulating their questions, and Mungiu-Pippidi conducted a workshop in which students developed ideas by discussing their own experiences during the pandemic.

The survey took place just as a second wave of the coronavirus took hold and governments introduced new restrictions on public life, including a “lockdown-light” in Germany starting on November 2 – the day the survey concluded.

In addition to the research component, the course included the study of various theories related to trust and reason. Students discussed ideas such as collectivism and individualism or nationalism and cosmopolitanism in the framework of  current events like the pandemic.

“The theme that resonated most for me is the idea that most of us are supposed to have a fixed idea of who we are as a person, what our political beliefs are or where we stand for example on the individualist vs. collectivist scales, by the time we are 25 or so,” said Maftei.  “But there have already been a few studies showing that people’s opinions actually shifted somewhat during COVID, and that this period was so devastating that their opinions – on life, on government, on society, people’s perceptions of themselves – actually started to change, which was very unusual.”

Key findings from the survey include:

  • A majority of university students reported that someone close to them had tested positive for COVID-19, and 7% said that they had lost someone close to them due to the virus.
  • Only 5% of respondents reported that they had tested positive for the virus, yet over a quarter said they had experienced symptoms and a majority had been in self-quarantine.
  • Half of respondents acknowledged feeling a low sense of general well-being during the pandemic, and two-thirds reported changes in their sleeping patterns.
  • A significant number of students showed a willingness to rationalise the pandemic through blame – in particular, through self-blame – with four out of ten agreeing with the statement “I think we brought this pandemic upon ourselves.”
  • At the time of being surveyed, over half of respondents were unable to visit home to see their families, while 17% of respondents said they could not return to their country of study.
  • Academic effort was not uniformly affected, as nearly one-third of respondents reported studying less while a similar share of students reported studying more.
  • The majority of students expressed high levels of institutional trust in their countries of residence during the COVID-19 pandemic: 29% of students trust government “completely” and 49% trust government “somewhat”. Furthermore, the majority of students felt that universities coped well with the pandemic.
  • A similarly large majority approved of their university’s handling of the pandemic situation.
  • More than half of respondents do not trust others to follow health rules. This proportion is significant even when controlling for those who have a generally distrustful disposition.