2020 Freshers: Did Universities Do Enough?
No, not really.
I don't like being pessimistic, but this year I think I can get away with it. Last September, brand new students started university despite all the restrictions and rules. Several months on, and students are paying for accommodation they cannot occupy, making memes about 'zoom university' and sitting in their bedrooms at home.
It is simply not good enough.
Students had already been messed about by the government's shambolic handling of A-Level results, and I'm sure many realised that they were not going to have the typical freshers experience, Large-scale gatherings and nightclubs were out of the question, but it isn't unrealistic for students to have expected some sort of reality in other ways, such as face-to-face teaching, societies and study space. However, within a few weeks of term, halls were being locked down by police, many students had gone home, and those left were sat in their rooms all day with people they had never met. The first few weeks of university are meant to be about familiarising yourself with the area, making friends and getting used to the freedom, but all that was soundly taken away.
So where are we now?
Universities have called off face-to-face teaching until February, students have been told to stay home, unless they are one of the lucky groups still to receive tuition on campus, or if their environment is unsuitable at home. Students left in halls are trapped with no activities, poor weather and messy housemates (student living is rarely as harmonious as the prospectuses claim) while paying lots of money for not a lot. Some universities have offered rent refunds for this lockdown, but that does nothing for those in private housing (the majority) and fails to address a wider issue of why universities begged students to return anyway.
It's important to remember that a lot of on-campus accommodation has been sold or outsourced to private companies. It's lucrative for the universities, as they just collect their money, and all the other stresses and overheads and left to others to solve. Money makes the world go around, and universities simply cant afford to have campuses sit empty, but now that has happened anyway. Universities are under increased pressure as they know students aren't happy with what has happened this year, as well as the problems last year as well. I lost all in-person teaching, 90% of my income and my drive to finish, and that was last year! I didn't get any refunds, and I bet I won't get a graduation. Lots of students this year have had it much worse, and are equally as financially worse off.
When is someone going to step up and apologise for this?
I don't even know who is responsible, the blame keeps getting passed from minister to minister as they gradually disappear into the shadows. University executive staff on six-figure salaries send emails pleading for good behaviour and a sense of community. Quite out of touch, when your students have lost their jobs, their rights to socialise and are still expected to produce the same calibre of work as before the pandemic. I can't blame students for poor behaviour anymore than I can blame the elderly who go shopping every day just to speak to someone, even though they should be shielding.
For those that return to campuses for the rest of the academic year, I worry for what is instore. The government is famous for going back on its word (hello Christmas) and universities are constantly having to react and re-plan. Staff are overworked and stretched, trying to provide a service that they would normally deliver on campus. Exams are looming in the summer, and it will be interesting to see how universities tackle them. Students need to be given plenty of time to prepare for new arrangements, and it all needs explaining properly. Then there are taught postgraduates and doctoral students, constantly confused about what is available to access, when and how. Constant forms to fill in, tests to take and rules to follow that are constantly changing, especially in lab environments. Not every course finishes in June, so universities need to have more extensive plans on how to support those who remain over the summer.
The Open University has been delivering online degrees for decades. They are accomplished at providing a student experience to fit around the lives of those who thought that university would be out of reach. Comparing what other universities are doing to the work of the OU is derogatory and unfair. There is much to learn from the OU, but that doesn't mean that their teaching is substandard. I've seen mentions on Twitter about this and I hate it, there is no need and no cause to slander an institution that has been providing a blended teaching approach for decades.
Social media proves to be a pretty depressing place nowadays, but it's important to switch off and avoid the endless 'doom scrolling'. Emails can be just as bad, especially the general ones, full of messages about strength and community which honestly feel quite shallow and out of touch, nearly a year into this mess. It can be quite easy to get obsessed with checking for updates and for news, a large indicator of how technology-focused our lives have become.
So what should happen?
Transparent communication, rent freezes and refunds, apologies, extensions, safety nets, fair warning about changes, mental health support, honesty, decisions on graduations, student surveys, roadmaps that actually follow through, support from the highest tiers of government, student solidarity and most importantly, change.
Without change, there cannot be a successful, value for money student experience for those entering higher education in 2021.