Over the weekend, readers of this site may remember that I wrote about the GP crisis; in short, the fact that many surgeries around the country have continued to operate in pandemic conditions, in spite of the successful vaccine roll out – and the economy being fully reopened.
On a similar note, universities have been tentative about getting back to normal, with reports of them enforcing face masks, social distancing and even vaccine passports for events on campus. The measure attracting the most negative media attention, however, is the use of online courses in academia.
Recently it was revealed, for instance, that 20 out of 24 Russell Group universities would maintain what’s now called “blended learning”; a sophisticated way of describing face-to-face and online teaching combined. Nottingham University even has plans to use “pre-recorded teaching materials” on its courses, which it can presumably recycle numerous times among students.
With undergraduates paying £9,250 a year for their degrees, it’s unsurprising that there’s been huge backlash against universities’ plans. People could understand the need for online measures during the pandemic, but not now.
So why are universities doing this? And what is to be done about it?
The most sympathetic explanation is that administrators – and sometimes students – are simply fearful about Coronavirus outbreaks, which can lead to localised ones too.
It makes sense that the activity administrators are most likely to put online is lectures, as opposed to small seminars, due to the fact that tens – and even hundreds – of students gather there, making them potential “superspreader” events.
Professor Dennis Hayes, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Derby and the Director of Academics for Academic Freedom, also points out just how much money universities spent “for campuses to be Covid safe” and that “they’re very wary about dropping everything” should there be a sudden change in the UK’s situation. Measures, for all their inconvenience, are designed to prevent future disruption.
But critics of the current system say universities have used Covid as an excuse to cut costs – and that the pandemic has simply accelerated their pre-existing goal to move courses online. They will point out that contact time with tutors has been declining for a very long time (and I empathise with this position as a graduate of 2010, who had two hours of teaching time per week in her final year).
It will also reinforce suggestions that the UK has become overly dependent on overseas students for business. Perhaps administrators are more worried about catering to this market, by way of online content, than trying to ensure a “normal” campus experience for the students already there.
As with GPs, the Government will be keen to get universities back to normal. Hayes thinks “a very clear statement about the importance of face-to-face teaching would be welcome” from the Government; “it would win support from university managers”.
Chris Skidmore, who was Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, warns that the Government needs a “national strategy” for accommodation, lest “another variant comes along”.
One of the Covid measures that has been most unfair for students surrounds their accommodation. Many were banned from it during the peak of the pandemic, despite paying full cost.
“Government could be providing accommodation support for students that’s outside of the tuition fee, particularly if we go into another lockdown and students have to leave their accommodation”, Skidmore adds, pointing out the large disparities in whether students got a rebate or not.
This idea might help to alleviate the quiet “refund war”, if I may, that’s been taking place between universities and students. A month ago, it was reported that University College London had paid a total of £68,748.33 in tuition refunds due to Covid in the last two years.
This came as something of a shock to the university’s President and Provost, who previously said it was “just not possible” to provide students with a refund, as online learning is “very expensive”.
Actually, students have more powers than ever before to pressure their universities. This is not only thanks to student unions clubbing together (more here), but due to a change of rules from The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE), an independent body set up to review student complaints about higher education providers in England and Wales.
It now allows for “Large Group Complaints”, described as instances when there’s a “high degree of commonality between complaints and where the complaints could be considered collectively”.
Essentially, this means large numbers of students can co-ordinate a complaint; if they feel, for instance, that they were sold a course much different than the one they got.
Moreover, market forces are going to have an effect on universities. Students now have a much greater idea of which ones are going to offer “blended learning”, and that will feed into their UCAS choices.
In the background, they also know that there are new non-graduate opportunities. The hospitality crisis has been the subject of alarming headlines, but for young people, it may present choices against overpriced, online degrees.
In short, the media coverage has made it easy to believe that students are victims in the university equation; and they have been dealt a bad hand in many ways.
But there are also signs of a pushback against a sector that has long taken its consumers for granted. By all indications, that’s about to change.