COVID-19 disrupted every aspect of our lives – yet, with much back to normal, it’s the university students who seem to be paying the price. With online classes replacing on campus lectures, students across the UK expected in-person learning to resume once lockdown was over. This hasn’t been the case, with universities deciding to extend online teaching – a widely criticised decision, as students were able to go to the pub, but not to the campus they were paying £9,250 to access.
Different universities adopted different approaches, but most maintained the in-person/online teaching hybrid. The London School of Economics predicted the ‘vast majority’ of seminars to be taught in-person, but that lectures would be delivered online. Similarly, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Manchester planned ‘a blended approach, with a mix of both on-campus and online elements’. St Andrews University, who adopted the same strategy, released a statement claiming that this ‘interim’ guidance mirrors the ‘significant uncertainty’ about the pandemic.
However, with students in England and Wales breaking records for the number of complaints filed against their universities, from disruption caused by both the pandemic and lecturer strikes, an important question has been raised. As one petitioner explained “now children are in school full time, people are back in the workplace and the general public can visit pubs, theatres and cinemas…there is absolutely no need for any lectures to remain online.”
What complaints were students making?
An annual survey of 10,000 students by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that only a quarter believed they received good value for money from their universities since the pandemic hit. The HEP revealed that ‘students were particularly aggrieved by a lack of in-person teaching’, as this year’s survey received the lower-ever satisfaction ratings since its inception in 2006. Additionally, the universities watchdog’s annual report showed that complaints had gone up by 10% between 2019 and 2020, with 43% of these complaints centred around service issues: facilities, teaching time, and academic supervision.
Furthermore, these complaints were registered by students who were at least able to access the material needed for online teaching in the first place. The UK’s National Union of Students has released research indicating that one in five students don’t have any access to online learning, with one in three claiming that their ‘online learning has been of poor quality.’
Is there any evidence to show that online teaching is worse quality than face-to-face?
A research base developed by Karl Alexander at John Hopkins University has suggested that students, particularly those with less resources, learn less when learning at home.
Additionally, students with learning difficulties are finding their quality of learning drastically decreasing when at home. Emily Stockle, a university student at Writtle College in Essex, told the BBC that remote teaching is tricky for her as it is, due to her ADHD. Indeed, students struggling from attention disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and many others, will find their learning to be even more detrimentally affected than those who don’t.
Now, students who were already at university when the pandemic hit, and have now graduated, are demanding compensation on their fees. Evidently, students currently at university, feel that their learning quality is worse when restricted to online learning. Indeed, the notion that many people’s social lives are back to normal, yet university students are studying in their bedrooms, seems unfair. It will be interesting to watch this battle, between students and these institutions play out, with many planning to fight until they receive some sort of compensation, while the impact of the remote, screen-based, teaching experience they have been receiving will only become clear over time.