However, there has been a mixed response to Covid-19 measures in place at various institutions, with some student representatives questioning why they were paying tuition fees for something “they could watch on YouTube for free”.
Last week it was revealed that the UK government ignored advice from the country’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to prohibit face-to-face teaching at universities unless “absolutely essential”.
“Teaching quality was very hit-and-miss, and teaching is not just about the lectures”
“We have now seen over 20,000 cases of Covid-19 at universities since the start of term,” said UCU general secretary, Jo Grady.
“The pandemic has exposed deep-rooted flaws in how universities are funded. The government’s failure to stand behind the sector in this time of crisis has meant institutions have been encouraged to prioritise student recruitment over health and safety, with staff and students now paying the price.”
Responses to how universities have adapted this year have been mixed.
At an All Party Parliamentary Group for Students meeting, student representatives expressed dissatisfaction with Covid-19 measures and questioned why they were paying tuition fees for something “they could watch on YouTube for free”.
“They said that teaching quality was very hit-and-miss, and teaching is not just about the lectures, but all the facilities that students normally have access to which are now closed,” noted a summary of the meeting.
“They pointed to the marketisation of higher education, which has led to this situation in which students are demanding their fees be repaid for the poor quality of learning.”
An ongoing survey from the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK has so far revealed issues around “difficulties faced by the lecturer in delivering the session via one of the online platforms” and “multiple students repeatedly talking over each other”, while suggesting that “elite universities are a cut above at providing the course content in both blended as well as online formats”.
“Initial results from a high level review we are currently conducting indicate that close to 40% of students are satisfied with the blended learning approach,” Sanam Arora, founder and chairperson of NISAU, told The PIE News.
“Equally, 40% of students are unsatisfied and hope that the medium of teaching will be bettered as further adjustments are made,” she continued.
“Respondents almost unanimously agree that a reduction in fees will allow for a better experience on the whole.”
Beyond lesson delivery however, multiple universities have faced condemnation by students for conditions on campus.
The cost of food packages for self-isolating students has proved to be a particular sore spot. Popular finance website Save the Student recommends a grocery budget of £100 per month for students, yet multiple universities are charging far in excess of that, including Lancaster University, where food package prices currently stand at £17.95 per day.
Queen’s University in Belfast is offering 14 days of quarantine food for £210 despite the packages being valued at just £55 by Belfast Live, although the university told The PIE that it made “no profit from this service” and it had “been very well received”.
Other attempts to manage students on campus have also attracted criticism.
The University of York recently had to update its safety guidance after it told self-isolating students that in the case of a fire they should “stay in [their] room one minute then make your way to the nearest refuge (this will allow non-isolating individuals to exit the building).”
Meanwhile, students at Bristol University are planning a rent strike to protest conditions, arguing that they are not getting the services they were promised.
“Students were sold on coming to university, after being promised blended learning, so many of us signed contracts with halls and moved in,” organisers explained.
“Now, we are finding that most of our learning has moved online and we are essentially paying thousands of pounds in rent for a room we wished we’d never signed for… We cannot access the blended learning we were promised, nor all the halls’ facilities we are paying for.”
“We are essentially paying thousands of pounds in rent for a room we wished we’d never signed for”
However, other students have praised their institutions’ response to Covid-19.
LSE maths and economics student Marcin Mochnacki described a strict on-campus regime of closed common rooms, dinners in shifts and wearing a mask outside of households, but added that “the measures make sense”.
“Of course, the entertainment possibilities are very limited. Students can only socialise within their households and apart from that, the only activities involving other people that are left are having some calls with friends, playing online games or talking over the phone,” he told The PIE.
“The hall suggested some online opportunities such as museum virtual tours and movies streaming services, and there are also support groups for the dorms that were locked down.”
He further said that the university has been posting lectures online and delivering classes in person whenever it is possible.
“The thing is, this year is much different from other years. I would say that my expectations were not too high this year because of the pandemic but I think they are doing quite well,” he said.
“It’s a completely different experience but no one can do anything about this. So for me it’s not exactly fair to blame the university – it is as good as it can be.”
Additional reporting by Will Nott.