People say that university is “the best time of your life”, but with the flawed A-Level exam algorithm messing up student intake and coronavirus putting a pause on Freshers’ week (and the tragic one-night stands), plus the ongoing marketisation of academic study – university in 2020 sounds anything but enjoyable.
The pandemic will clearly be affecting the university experience for students this September, but how will it impact the staff responsible for teaching them? What are their biggest fears about academic institutions reopening this month? I reached out to research fellows, professors and lecturers to ask them what they think the upcoming semester will look like.
“I feel like students have been sacrificed”
Students get a real bum deal out of academia at the moment, because there's a lot of inherent issues with the current system – coronavirus will be magnifying a lot of them. The university sector is in a bit of crisis at the moment anyway, we are in a period where research funding isn't enough to keep people going. Universities in the UK are having to bring in students in order to pay their staff, so students are actually the fundamental income revenue for universities. And this is complicated even more by the fact that different parts of the UK have different fees.
This is the thing I'm really frustrated about, I feel like students have been kind of sacrificed at the expense of universities' side hustles, which is accommodation and making sure that students come to the bars and things like that. These are all financial money makers for the universities and not actually what the university experience should be about.
You're going to have students who perhaps aren't very financially independent, they don't have a lot of money. They've been told to come to university because they must be here and have some kind of on-campus experience. But if they come here and the universities pivot back to an online experience, which I think is very likely because it minimises the risk of spread, maybe the students would have preferred to make an informed choice themselves. Annabel*, research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
“Unis are panicking that no one is going to turn up”
In general, there's a worry about the transmission. And our uni has made a pledge that there'll be quite a lot of face-to-face teaching – 50 to 51 percent, some ridiculous number like that. It's ridiculous because it's not actually happening or manageable. There's no lectures at all, they're online. And so students have been split into smaller seminar groups. One of the problems is that there's actually more teaching, which is crazy, because they can only have 20 in a class.
That pledge about 51 percent was solely made because they thought it sounded good and it would attract students and beat our competitors. So rather than saying, “Let's see what the best thing that we can do for the students is,” which would clearly be just go online – that's what the union said, that's what the SAGE advice is, they want to put people at risk for money really, particularly the staff that are at risk.
Unis are panicking that no one is going to turn up. The system is so consumer-driven and therefore students will treat it like a consumer thing. So, I think we’re going to be directed to teach mostly empty classrooms. I think we're gonna get in a situation where we've got outbreaks, that seems pretty inevitable and most unis don't really have any idea what to do if that happens. Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies in the School of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University.
“They are saying they don’t have the money [to extend short-term teaching contracts], but they have £5 billion in reserves”
A bunch of universities opened in the US and then had to close a week later. Yeah. So, everyone thinks that's going to happen in the UK and that the government's deluded with opening universities. People are worried because older academics are going to be at risk of COVID, there are people with underlying conditions or staff may be responsible for people at home who are vulnerable. They don't want to be catching COVID and bringing it home. And there's also the support staff, so the cleaners and caterers are from low income groups and often BAME background, which are at a higher risk of death from COVID.
I've been invited to do some online teaching training but it's very basic. It's certainly not rigorous training in how to do a proper course online. But I plan on not doing the training because I'm not getting paid for it, I'm only getting paid per contact hour with students.
Cambridge extended people on temporary contracts, if they expired by the 31st of July 2020, by three months. We did pursue them to extend that to people whose contracts ended on the 31st of August, because a huge amount of staff are on one-year contracts that will expire, including me, but the uni refuses to. They're saying they don't have the money, but they have £5 billion in reserves. Kate*, lecturer paid hourly at the University of Cambridge.
“Trying to meet [international students] in a reasonable time zone is going to be a real challenge”
My biggest concern are the organisational challenges that are coming with the social distancing. I think a lot of the staff, especially in my department, are taking COVID very seriously and taking the need to social distance very seriously. It's just really hard. Oxford has waived its residency requirements until next year 2021, so that means students can be at home. That's all right, if they're in the UK, but we have students that are coming from China, Australia, the west coast of the US, which means that trying to meet [international students] in a reasonable time zone is going to be a real challenge.
We're duplicating a lot of the tutorial effort. And we started this in the last term, where we had a morning tutorial that started at 8:30, and an evening tutorial that ended at 6, and that caught people across the globe, but it was still a bit of a struggle because the people on the West Coast still had to get up really early. You really notice different energies. Whether people are at the beginning of the day or the end of the day, finding time to meet with people, has been challenging. Bernie Hogan, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and Research Associate at the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford.
“Many students and staff are worried about infection risk. Peace of mind isn’t quite there yet”
With 137 universities in the UK, and 89 out of 92 indicating classroom teaching will take place, it’s not surprising that many students and staff are worried about infection risk. Peace of mind isn’t quite there yet. It depends on every university and how well they are equipped, the budget they have available, the mix between online and live classes they are able to offer.
When it comes to reducing coronavirus transmission risk, we know from research that test-trace-isolate strategies outperform mere symptoms reporting. Even if a university is located in an area with few COVID-19 cases, there’s no guarantee that infections within the university community will remain low. Potentially, as many as two million additional people could be mobilised daily after university re-openings, with many students and staff coming from high-transmission areas or abroad. For this reason, requesting self-isolation for two weeks before attending classes wouldn’t be a bad policy to keep transmission rates as low as possible.
From my point of view, it wouldn’t be entirely reasonable to expect that all students (specially the probably less fearful younger ones) won’t go to clandestine parties, or for university leaders to place the blame on students should infection rates soar. Behavioural research already tells us that shaming young adults for risky public health behaviours may backfire and fail as a safeguard strategy. Alex Ruani, doctoral researcher at University College London.
*Names have been changed.