I am a month into my second year at university, and I can’t say I am particularly impressed.
With the number of contact hours I receive a week slashed and the university being slow to give guidance and support, it begs the question – why should I pay £9250 for this? 200,000 people have already signed a petition requesting that the government introduce a partial or full tuition fee refund for students. Considering the fact that our experience is being greatly affected, don’t they have a point?
Firstly, I understand completely that my university experience in light of the coronavirus pandemic would be entirely different, but this does not mean that the government or university have handled the situation particularly well. At the University of Bristol where I study, library access is limited to a maximum of 4 hours a week. Despite this, the university gym next door is open, and those willing to pay can work out as much as they like. How does that make sense?
Online lectures are a mess too. Instead of one hour or two hour lectures like we received last year, the amount of teaching we have received has dramatically been reduced. Lecturers are now giving us 20 minute ‘bitesize’ lectures instead of a full hour or two hours worth of material. They claim this is so we can digest the content more effectively. To me, it seems like yet another example of how the quality of teaching has declined following the pandemic.
With the majority of lectures moving online across most UK universities, this obviously has resulted in a strain on the IT and software side of learning. Watching lectures back on ‘Blackboard’, the audio often cuts in and out, and with hundreds of people trying to watch the same broadcast, it can often result in lag and livestreams randomly crashing. I understand there may be some technological glitches and malfunctions, but at the moment the technological infrastructure simply is not good enough to accommodate thousands of students bottlenecking one website. Many people have already likened the 2020/21 university year to a £9250 subscription service, but this is not a wholly accurate description. On Netflix, I can almost guarantee that content will load and play on demand. With Blackboard, I may as well flip a coin every time I attempt to log in.
Another underappreciated point that I don’t often see raised following the switch to online teaching is the wealth disparity. Poorer students who are not as fortunate in having a ‘bank of Mum and Dad’ to fall back on have it much harder. Choosing a budget Wi-Fi package might be the only option for some students, and this often at times results in slower speeds and impacts the quality of your learning, as students are now required to have an internet connection to access lectures, library books and seminars.
In some senses though, I am fairly lucky. Being a second year student, I have more freedom and independence. I do not have university security patrolling the halls of my accommodation, attempting to sniff out the possibility of a house party. I established friendships in first year and have a solid group of flatmates, but I imagine if I was a fresher I would be finding it difficult to socialise and make friends. Both the annual ‘Freshers Week’ and the ‘Freshers Fair’ were a virtual affair this year, and students living in halls are confined to mingling with those in their corridor or hallway. That’s all well and good if you like the people you share with, but often times you don’t. All this can have a detrimental impact on young peoples’ mental health. In a recent study by Young Minds, they found that 80% of young people surveyed agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has made their mental health worse. Going to university is a new and scary experience, and the possibility of having to isolate in a new place surrounded by people you do not know can result in loneliness and be daunting. Universities need to do more to ensure that support services are available to young people in this challenging period.
Many international students have it bad too. In many cases, they are not even on campus to make friends and have that basic level of university experience. Flights across the world have been cancelled due to the pandemic, and students from China, Singapore and the Middle East are ‘attending’ university from thousands of miles away.
The virus affects everyone and has caused much damage to so many families in the UK and across the world. I understand that in comparison to other issues going on, a student complaining about tuition fees and students’ experience may seem trivial and almost unimportant, but this piece has hopefully shown that the pandemic has affected all age groups in different ways.
Though the risk of young people dying of COVID-19 is low, SAGE, the group of government’s special scientific advisers, recently warned that young people are at risk of being ‘catastrophically’ hit by the ‘collateral damage’ wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. With students across the country getting into debt taking out tuition fees and maintenance loans, perhaps it is time for the government to implement a scheme to offer support. Job prospects for young people in the next few years are going to be bleak, and students graduating with thousands of pounds of debt may end up feeling left behind if nothing is done to help them.