Online learning doesn't work - university students deserve to be put first
Illustration: Zofia Chamienia

Hearing the news that universities may not be reopening in September has brought on many unwelcome flashbacks to spring: split between the blissful naivety of planning summer trips with flatmates with growing anxiety that hoping for any sense of normality for the foreseeable future was all a pipe-dream. Now, almost six months on, I feel thrust into that limbo again.

While many students like myself prepare to return to university this autumn, the University and College Union (UCU) has announced its opposition to reopening campuses rather than proceed with the planned blend of both online and in-person teaching. They demand that the government put face-to-face education online until at least the end of the academic year. 

It’s a punch in the gut to any returning student – or, indeed, incoming freshers—who are at risk of becoming the victim of another U-turn after the A-level fiasco earlier this month, if the government follows suit. 

This isn’t to say the UCU is acting disproportionately. As British cases increase, we’ve seen American colleges close due to coronavirus outbreaks, and European countries like Germany have opted to keep the majority of university classes online after a climbing daily infection rate. Bringing any kind of group together after time apart is a huge risk, especially with the international cohort that U.K. universities attract. No one wants to see another nationwide lockdown, and I certainly don’t want to see students held responsible – just look at how they’ve been reprimanded across the pond.

“I’m also someone who has been denied their university experience – a time period I won’t get back”

However, I’m also someone who has been denied their university experience – a time period I won’t get back – and I long to return to some kind of normality. A feeling of being left behind has clouded over much of my lockdown experience: sub-par online teaching, poor financial support, and unclear communication has defined a year that should have been spent on campus with my friends, not back in my family home 100 miles away.

Online teaching can never be a substitution for the real thing. I learnt this from my own remote third term, talking to friends who had scheduled seminars and regular teacher interaction, while I struggled through essay after essay with only one short Zoom call with my tutor.  

However, I was one of the relatively lucky ones. As is the case with primary and secondary schools, online learning exposes the inconsistencies in teaching. Course choice, location and institution all come into play with making remote learning work. Maddy Raven, who studies theatre at Bristol, says  “they’ve had to cut out entire units”, on going into her third year during the pandemic.

“They’re not going to be able to find everyone a placement because places like Bristol Old Vic are letting go of a third of their staff (…) instead I have to do a 5,000 word essay about the ‘industry’. They’re trying their best but it’s also not good enough given the promises that were made when we signed up for the degree.”

There is a huge variety in quality across the factors influencing online learning. It’s a rushed model for a temporary situation, not a worthy substitute for half a year of higher education. With no concrete plans on how to improve remote learning, how can the UCU justify not exploring other options first? How can we have an active and creative discussion through a crackly internet signal and technical difficulties? It’s a similar pattern that has been found in other remote working situations too, as well as the  difficult home environments many individuals are left with once the cameras are off.

Bethany Collins, who studies politics at Exeter University and lives at home with her parents and sister, relies heavily on campus study spaces such as the library to get work done. She also had a tough time working at home – “My early lockdown learning was just a voice recording of the lecturer narrating the slides.”

“My autistic sister lives at home with us which is often a challenge so I’m hoping I’ll be able to get to campus enough to work.”

There are also many other consequences of campus closure. Many second and third-year students are now locked into private renting contracts which they could have cancelled had the UCU’s announcements come earlier. 

Universities have been putting time, money and resources into making their campuses  Covid-secure. At my university, Warwick, for instance, masks have to be worn in all enclosed and public places (including teaching), hand sanitising stations have been installed and a campus ‘Test and Trace’ system has been designed.

“The entire university experience itself is in jeopardy”

And it’s not just our education that’s at risk – the entire university experience itself is in jeopardy. Holding on to the dregs of normal student life, I’ve already accepted my new ‘blended’ future: mingling in society socials and the blessed weekly club night are now relics of the past. 

Although I understand the UCU’s reasoning, with cases amongst young people on the rise, bringing such an international cohort like universities attract may only exacerbate the situation. Campus closure should be a last resort, rather than a first option. Online education is not yet at a good enough standard to justify losing both the social and academic experience that our £9,250 pays for.

Further and higher education is constantly undermined as a luxury, and it’s tiring. If the government is moving mountains to keep primary and secondary schools open (with many of the pupils only a few years younger than the average uni student), then the least they can do is make the effort to value us too.