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Students and Covid 19: why lockdown learning is just the tip of the iceberg

In our research with students of today, we've found that the Covid 19 response from Universities is just one of several issues with HE today: from finances to the ethics of their institutions, students are worrying about much more than just online lectures

Whilst the COVID-19 outbreak has radically impacted the demand for all sorts of services, it looks like students aren’t radically changing their minds about what they want from Universities. Our recent research has started to shed light on this: students aren’t increasingly attracted by Universities with more digital offerings, and they place high value on the in-person interactions they have with staff and other students.

Students and Covid 19: why lockdown learning is just the tip of the iceberg

That said, the idea of University as an opportunity for young people to move away from home and ‘spread their wings’ isn’t universal: whilst only 13% of the most advantaged socioeconomic group live at home for University, this figure is a staggering 45% for the least advantaged. British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students are over six times more likely than White students to stay living at home and study locally.

What is missing from the ongoing debates around Higher Education is the voice of the real students of today. We wanted to get under the skin of what’s on the minds' of current and prospective students in 2020, and to that end conducted some in-depth research with a variety of students, including those from less advantaged backgrounds and commuter students.

1. Students are giving Universities the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Covid response

For the most part, students see that Universities have had to deal with a lot of upheaval and are forgiving of the mistakes made during this period.  Even it when it came to being ‘guinea pigs’ for the first round of online exams, or the lack of communication about plans for September, there were no hard feelings.

‘I’m relatively happy with what they’ve done so far. It’s what I’d expect, more than happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.’ MA student

‘We break up in two days, [but the staff] are still trying to improve what they’re doing, and like to get feedback.’ 2nd year student

‘People don’t know what will be happening in two week’s, so it’s understandable the Universities aren’t sure of what they’ll be doing in September’ Anon

2. What matters is how ethically Universities will be able to handle what comes next

As demonstrated starkly in recent challenges to curriculum, statues and statues on campus, today’s students are ethically oriented. Students have expressed much greater concern and dissatisfaction with University strikes and the treatment of workers than with the Covid-19 response, and it will be the ethical handling of the coming years that will be make or break for Universities.

‘We’ve had uni strikes anyway. Even when there was an opportunity to give students a chance to study normally, they didn’t take that opportunity. They’re still doing zero hour contracts. I’m more annoyed about that than Covid-19 response’ MA student

‘At my uni, staff got told on the last day of their strike to start teaching online from Monday. You could see people didn’t have time to prepare.’ Anon

‘[X] recently did a complete 180 on its advice, switching from “we recommend you all stay” to “you all need to pack up and leave”. A lot of international students (myself included) are being strong-armed out of the country even with exceptional circumstances.’  International student

3. Finances will continue to be a sore point for students

The tension between students’ sympathies and their desire for ethical treatment comes to a head regarding tuition fees. It’s hard for some students to feel that they are getting value for money when an ordinarily hands-on course shifts to online provision. The perceived lack of acknowledgement or consideration from Universities on this issue makes it sting all the more. Tuition fees are just one of several mounting financial pressures for students. Students renting from private landlords are worried about paying for tenancies that they will be unable to make the most of or get out of, with many worrying about whether it’s worth getting something in September or not. This is only exacerbated by the dwindling chances of finding part-time employment to supplement income whilst studying.

‘Universities haven’t really considered or taken notice of the numerous petition for reimbursement for degree and accommodation.’ 2nd year student

‘Maintaining such high fees whilst giving zero facilities is unethical. Also when the government is slowly easing restrictions and have plans to fully reopen by July, why are they still claiming 9k or 30k with online education’ Anon

‘Should I start paying for student accommodation or not? The newspapers are saying it’s most likely that a second peak in COVID cases will happen and universities will close again in autumn, and I just don’t know what to do. The contract doesn’t have a break clause and therefore we would have to pay A LOT of money to terminate the contract earlier than agreed.’ 2nd yr student

4. Online learning has benefits for some types of learners, and Universities might want to prioritise first year students for in-person lectures

Whilst our survey expressed a preference for in-person learning, a mixed economy of online and offline can have benefits for students. Of those we spoke to, year 13’s who are less used to the autonomy and of rhythms of University education are more worried about being expected to study from behind a laptop. Universities may therefore wish to prioritise new starters for in-person teaching time in order to help them acclimatise.

‘I like watching lectures online because you can pause it. You can speed it up if they’re speaking slowly, plus it’s good for revision later down the line’ MA student

‘Online lectures can be good for someone with people with social anxiety, you can feel more confident about speaking up’ 2nd year student

‘My online learning so far hasn’t worked at all. It’s hard to pay that much attention when just staring at a laptop and you’re not engaged.’ Year 13 student

‘I wouldn’t have gone if it was all online. It’s not really worth it. The fees are quite a lot just for an online course.’ Year 13 student

5. Universities need to think more about how to create connection in a socially distanced environment, both for social and professional reasons

Universities have managed to find their footing in making plans for online lectures and seminars. They have thought far less about fostering social connections between students, and this is what worries many. Not only is the social connection important for managing the growing mental health challenges amongst University students, but University is also where young people make connections to help them in employment. Especially with students from less well-off backgrounds, University can be the first chance to meet with people linked to the professions that they are interested in. Universities need to try even harder to make sure avenues for expanding their networks remain available to first in the family undergrads and international students at risk of isolation.

‘A couple of friends doing “get to know your course” online zoom meetings. There’s a lot of awkward silence. I would be open to participating but I’m also sceptical. It's more unnatural to meet people online.’ Year 13 student

‘The bits that are more annoying are the networking and meeting people on your course. If you want to do stuff in politics you need to know people.’ MA student

‘I want to know any other Indian students going to UK for this September intake. How will I be able to meet them?’ Anon

‘From the social side, they don’t have a plan. I think some of the work isn’t hard to do at home. The challenge is how to get to know people  if you’re going to interact with them.’ Year 13 student


To talk about what’s next for HE, get in touch with Antonio Weiss.

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