Updated: Oct 30, 2020
By Dr Paulina Guerrero-Gutiérrez
Last month, Manchester University became the first institution to announce that all of their lectures for the Autumn term will be delivered online. Five days later, Cambridge University followed suit and announced they would do the same for the duration of the 2020-2021 academic year. With COVID-19 continuing to put the world in a standstill, many prospective students who were due to start university in 2020-2021 are facing a number of questions about what to do with their academic futures.
Which universities are definitively going online, and which are not?
Currently, every British university is delivering their lectures online, with many of them making the switch even before the start of lockdown and the closure of schools. Most, if not all, have put in place some sort of provision to make exams online as well. However, it is now time to prepare for the 2020-2021 academic year and the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is making this virtually impossible. There have been several approaches so far:
Surprisingly, most universities still do not know what they will be doing. Universities like UCL, Imperial College London, The University of Sheffield, Durham University, and the University of Nottingham are either ‘making contingency plans’ or waiting for government guidance. Other universities like King’s College London and SOAS have not yet made a statement, instead emphasising their efforts in the fight against COVID-19.
Other universities are planning for some form of dual delivery, with some socially distanced, face-to-face teaching, and some activity online. This is the case for Oxford University, Birkbeck, The University of St. Andrews, and Brunel University London.
Finally, a third group of universities, mainly those in Scotland, are planning to delay the start of the 2021 academic year. This is the case of the University of Aberdeen, the University of Dundee, Glasgow Caledonian University, and Abertay University. The London Metropolitan University and Aston University are considering following suit.
Can we really be sure?
The question remains as to whether doing anything but teach online makes sense. So far, despite some promising vaccine candidates advancing to clinical trials, we are still months, if not years away from having a mass-produced vaccine. Until this is the case, we need to accept the fact that social distancing will continue to be in place for the foreseeable future. Anyone that has ever seen a lecture hall knows it is simply impossible to practice complete social distancing while face-to-face sessions are taking place. Therefore, for universities, there might be no alternative but to keep the teaching online.
In some cases, universities are resistant to this reality and insist they will operate normally, with additional measures to make it safe for students and staff. For example, the University of Bolton has declared that they will open with temperature scanners and face masks, and will introduce changes in scheduling to minimise the number of people on campus at any given time. The University of Leeds currently says on its website that they are ‘preparing for students in September’, although they accept they might have to notify offer holders of any ‘alternative arrangements’. However, many academics agree that all universities will eventually cave and remain as online universities at least for part of the next academic year and that they should be open and honest with their prospective students:
Will the quality of teaching and learning be the same?
Something that needs to be understood is that online learning is not the same as emergency online teaching. If truth be told, most of the universities that have now gone online are doing the second, simply because there has not been enough time to prepare online courses since the contingency started.
The pedagogy necessary for distance learning is very different from that of a face-to-face course. For one, it requires good mechanisms to compensate for students’ inability to immediately ask questions. It requires a different kind of pastoral support and a structure that maintains students’ motivation even when they are isolated and not on campus. Online teaching entails more than just uploading materials from usual lectures into a virtual learning environment. It requires specific planning and training for members of staff with different levels of technological expertise. Even if universities provide that training in time for this September, it will effectively be the first time those courses will have ever been run in that format and there will certainly be some kinks to work out.
As much as we need to recognise the incredible efforts of lecturers and professors who have strived to save this academic year, these are going to be different courses. It would be wrong of universities to pretend otherwise or to state students’ experience will be the same.
What will happen to tuition fees?
It is expected that universities will take a hit to their revenue of around £760m in the upcoming academic year. The uncertainty is not only reducing the number of home students applying but also of international students, who pay up to three times the cost paid by home students for their degree. The National Union of Students is also pushing for some form of a refund to be granted to students who had their lectures disrupted by the crisis. Therefore, unless there is a significant bailout from the government, universities are going to be in extremely bad shape in the next academic year (some might even have to close their doors or merge with others). Some of the potential ways in which they might make up for the shortfall will be to raise tuition fees or make staff redundant. Therefore, deferring one year might mean that prospective students end up paying more fees for their degree than those that do not defer.
Should I still apply? Should I defer?
This is perhaps the key question that every prospective student is asking themselves. However, it is the one that we cannot answer. It will all come down to personal circumstances and what makes sense for individual students. However, here are some key things to consider moving forward:
Reflect on what is important of your university experience: is learning the most important to you or were you looking forwards to the now cancelled Freshers’ weeks, and to making those friends that would last you a lifetime? Was university your chance to get out of your comfort zone and meet new people?
How good are your marks? Consider that many students will postpone applying or will defer their enrolment to the next academic year. Therefore, there might be a tighter competition next year. Be aware that if you do not apply this year, you might not get an offer later. However, also note that not all universities are granting blanket deferrals: they are still considering on a case-by-case basis.
Are you a highly motivated learner or do you easily get distracted and demotivated? How well do you work on your own? Have you ever written an essay on the subject you are applying for? Do you know how to use a library and how to look for academic sources online? The answers to these questions will help you predict how well you will perform in an online environment.
How practical is your degree? Will it transfer well to an online medium, or will a key part of it will be missing, as would be the case for those studying drama, engineering, and science?
Regardless of each student’s choices, we need to be aware that the crisis is not going to be solved soon. We are operating in unprecedented times. It is up to each person to decide the best course of action for their individual circumstances, but it is up to universities, to be honest, and transparent and give students all the information they need to make these decisions. They should do so soon.