Student, interrupted: How will Covid-19 transform higher education?

The pandemic represents a challenge and an opportunity for UK universities to overhaul their offering to students.

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Modern universities in the UK offer two things. Formally, they might be referred to as “formation” and “certification”; essentially, a student experience and an education.

In our collective imagination, the former is just as much about hours passed in libraries and lecture halls, chugging coffee while racing toward an essay deadline, as it is about protests, pints, dates and UV raves. Freshers’ week means chance encounters and the rapid expansion of a student’s social network beyond their course and accommodation.

Yet the tradition of UK students leaving home at 18 or 19 to live in or near their institution, and the dependence of the system on student fees, now threatens to cripple parts of the higher education sector as universities reopen campuses in September and October.

Official government guidance “expects higher education providers to be open” for the coming academic year, the specifics of which institutions should interpret according to their own capacity and the “demographic profile of [their] staff and student bodies” through risk assessments and “autonomous” judgement. This will dictate how facilities such as libraries, laboratories and performing arts venues are reopened to accommodate staff and students on campus, with social distancing rules applied.

It is also up to universities as “autonomous bodies” to identify the needs of students where counselling services and welfare amenities are concerned. The Department for Education has worked with Student Minds and the Office for Students to produce a resource base, Student Space, “which seeks to bridge gaps in mental health support for students arising from this unprecedented situation”.

However, scientists at Independent Sage, in their “Consultation Statement on Universities in the context of SARS-CoV-2”, advise students not to return to university accommodation and in-person learning unless it is crucial to their course (lab work, for example) or their wellbeing. In these cases, says Independent Sage, compulsory track and trace should be enforced.

The paper argues those on campus should sign “behavioural charters”, promising to restrict face-to-face activities outside social bubbles of a maximum of six to eight people, and to wear face masks in communal areas – measures that are being implemented by a number of universities.

The majority of universities hope to reinstate in-person teaching as far as possible with small seminars and classes, according to a recent Times Higher Education survey. Most are expecting students to return to campus this month, but Covid-19 policies vary.

University College London, in its guidance for incoming students, says students can return to campus if they wish, but it is not mandatory to do so during the first term. Even if the individual student is present on campus, contact hours will be kept to a minimum of one to two hours a week, and will be readily interchangeable with online sessions. The University of Oxford, meanwhile, is not waiving its residency requirements and will conduct its tutorials in person.

Some universities are making specific timetable updates and physical changes to help students return safely. For example, according to Aberystwyth University deputy vice-chancellor Anwen Jones, the university is restructuring “the timetable to support social distancing” with a “package of online and in-person teaching” – as well as “introducing one-way systems, classroom layout changes and signage”, and expanding its space with “a wide array of additional buildings, significant space for small group teaching, and our spacious, rural environment”.

At the University of Bristol, teaching hours will be extended to 8pm on weekdays, and these hours are expected to creep into the weekend, as they will do at the University of Central Lancashire, Coventry University and the University of the Arts London. 

This over-extension of resources is already resulting in graduate teachers “being asked to bear the brunt of face-to-face teaching work” without full employment rights, as Vicky Blake, of the UCU committee, argued in a recent conference.

Untenured staff with no remaining leave or sick pay may feel they cannot afford to self-isolate if required, which could affect universities’ Covid-19 data and undermine industrial relations in the sector.

The university admissions system is also in crisis following the A-Level results fiasco, which left many universities expecting to exceed maximum capacity, with little time to make alternative arrangements, or propose deferred placements to offer-holders they cannot physically accommodate this year.

The prospect of a second wave of the virus midway through the term – or outbreaks in individual university towns – could leave students stranded, displaced, or forced to return to volatile domestic contexts, disrupting the course of their studies.

Psychologist Stephen Reicher observed, at the same conference, that young people have generally been “demonised” for the spread of Covid-19, when in fact “the headline of this pandemic is that most young people did observe lockdown, even though at a personal level they were at less risk.” He added: “We need to acknowledge that they did that for the communal good.”

According to National Union of Students president Larissa Kennedy, more than a third of students surveyed recently said they would not feel safe with a return to face-to-face teaching in September 2020. Kennedy said that while there ought to be concern for the mental health of students at risk from isolation, that universities are promoting “bums on seats” over other students' and staff welfare indicates a critical lack of funding.

Even for Gen Z, total reliance on the internet for almost all aspects of life is unprecedented. Stripped of the “uni experience” as an unlimited social and networking opportunity, students may, and should, expect more from the formal education they do receive.

This could be a pivotal moment in the restructuring of higher education, says Tom Sperlinger, professor of literature and engaged pedagogy at the University of Bristol, and co-author of a book proposing higher education reforms: Who Are Universities For? (Bristol University Press, 2020).

“Universities could be creating more opportunities for adult learners and younger people without conventional qualifications, who need skills to enter or return to the labour market,” he says. “The government will need to incentivise universities to offer shorter courses, as well as degrees, and institutions will need to be willing to utilise the new virtual tools in creative ways to reach new types of student.”

Sperlinger also argues the exam results crisis could change universities’ measures for entry: “Why not switch to a system where we are always measuring potential to learn and benefit at admission, rather than just prior achievement? For too long, we’ve thought of admissions as an administrative matter – but it’s arguably one of the biggest pedagogical questions that universities face: Who are you there to educate?”

Sperlinger suggests the model of the Open University, which was “50 years ahead of its time in delivering high-quality distance education to a broad range of people” should be studied carefully today. “Its staff and students have experience of just the kind of online pedagogies now urgently needed across the sector.”

Minerva Schools, a Silicon Valley initiative founded in 2012 that gives all undergraduate teaching through online video classes, appears to encompass this new style of higher education (its extremely selective admissions process and tiny student body notwithstanding).

Profiled in the New Yorker and the Guardian, Minerva is being touted as a torchbearer for traditional universities amid the current upheaval – an educational answer to digital nomadism, with students alternating between physical halls of residence in seven global cities (London, San Francisco, Berlin, Hyderabad, Buenos Aires, Taipei and Seoul) on a termly basis.

While classes are all taught in seminar format online, civic partnerships – for example, an internship with the Ministry of Education in Buenos Aires – and location-based assignments that engage students in their host city are part of the university’s offering of “experiential learning” and “global immersion”.

“All of our classes have been unaffected [by coronavirus],” says Ben Nelson, the college’s CEO and founder. “Education doesn’t require physical presence – in fact, it is quite a lot better without it, as we have proven over the years.”

Early on in the Covid-19 crisis last term, students who wished to return to their home countries were encouraged to do so, while more than 100 stayed in residence. This autumn, “only about a quarter” of students are planning to study from home, and all three semesters will take place in the usual locations.

“Our students study in an organisation built to be resilient,” says Nelson. Although Covid-19 has impacted campus life and social life, “the educational enterprise of the institution should have been unaffected”.

The notion that Zoom “has all of a sudden made the otherwise wonderful lecture terrible” is a misconception, he believes. “The issue has nothing to do with Covid – it has to do with the rot of higher education at its core.”

Disenchanted with the traditional college campus, Nelson established Minerva as a more “realistic” environment for students than the infrastructure of libraries, catered accommodation blocks and other amenities that he believes create “fantasy living that doesn’t exist when you graduate”.

He also criticises compartmentalised academic specialisms – Minerva only offers one five-year study programme focusing on transferrable skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking. “The problem is that European education is not cross-contextual,” says Nelson. “Universities are becoming certifiers, and society is paying the price – you have people who are highly certified, but they don’t know what to do in a situation they’ve never encountered before.”

In contrast to Minerva’s established online teaching methods, UK universities’ makeshift response to remote learning could risk failing to accommodate a full spectrum of learner profiles already overlooked before the pandemic. Neurodivergent students (those with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD, for example) may require adjustments – such as changes to lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, a private room for examinations, coloured paper or an emphasis on visual or aural media.

“My main concern is how to create a sensory dimension with online learning – it’s easy to think that because we’re going digital the body no longer matters”, says Kate West, a lecturer in criminology at Oxford Brookes and self-described neurodivergent student-turned-academic.

“Even if I, as a learner, go to a public lecture under normal circumstances, I have a particular ritual which is usually to sit in a corner or behind people at the back, and I like to close my eyes because I’m overwhelmed sensorily and just take in a voice... There’s kind of a presence that by virtue of being online you have to embody – even though you’re digitised, you have to be there, and you have to be seen to be paying attention.” The “ritual of touch” (such as highlighting notes, or simply putting a pen to paper) is important to many learners. To help make up for its absence in online learning, teachers trying to work remotely must now try to engage with students directly to work out their learning preferences – a level of engagement missing even from traditional physical lecture and seminar environments.

If there has ever been a moment for more versatile teaching practices to develop, it is now. Compassionate and informed approaches can cost little, especially compared with the high price universities would have to pay if they fail their students now. Grappling with the issue of where and how students learn during a pandemic could mean the difference between a precarious future and a great leap forward for the higher education sector and those it serves. 

Harper Dafforn is a Danson scholar, interning at the New Statesman

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