Opinion

The forgotten student experience: part 3

Higher Education is at a crossroads. it has been a difficult year and the future is uncertain. The forgotten student has had to cope with mainly online learning.
Photo by Javiet Trueba from unsplash

It’s pretty clear, students have had enough. Last year, students filed complaints to their universities at a higher rate than normal, citing the low quality of teaching online compared to when it happened in person. It’s easy to wallow around in misery at how this year has turned out for both university students and their lecturers/tutors. I’ve certainly done a lot of that lately. However, it’s important to consider what the future could look like for Higher Education. In particular for the ‘forgotten student’.

The change to social distancing regulations could present so many different implications for the next academic year, even at the most optimistic projections. Several universities have already confirmed this.

Blended learning next academic year?

Despite the vaccination process going smoothly, the BBC reports that many universities are planning a blended learning approach. This could be for at least the first term of the new academic year. If you take a look at the comments section on this report, you will see a lot of discontent amongst students. Another wave of petition and strikes looks likely, with students in Leeds starting a petition due to the backlash.

Interestingly, the NSU seems to be kind of siding with universities such as Manchester on this, explaining how there could be benefits to a blended approach to learning. This hasn’t calmed down student and family outcries, although universities have explained that this is a result of significant uncertainty about any remaining social distancing requirements after September. This is especially clear considering that the Indian variant could cause a delay to the final stage of lockdown lifting.

Sure, there are arguments for keeping blended learning. However, none of this is going to quiet the outrage of students and their families. They are fuming at the prospect of paying another £9250 for pre-recorded lectures. But it’s not as if it’s easier for teaching staff either.

Student engagement

Even before the pandemic forced universities to teach solely online, university teaching staff had been having debates regarding what “student engagement” actually means in practice. It is due to the lack of consistency in what engagement means to individual lecturers and even students that these discussions often fail before they even begin.

Never mind the ethical implications that have been debated for years about the use of virtual learning environments in monitoring student engagement. What is interesting is that only 47% of students surveyed in 2020 believe that information of engagement within university should be a priority in regards to data protection. While this indicates student acceptance of having their progress tracked online, both students and lecturers have issues with the principle of attendance monitoring as they feel spied on and like they aren’t trusted. Could this tension increase as a result of a shift to a primarily digital teaching pedagogy, meaning that attendance and engagement monitoring could (mostly) shift online?

Tuition fees and accommodation rent – is the price right?

This year, a big aspect of the Covid-19 debate has been how to realistically provide students with value for money. As alluded to earlier, students and their parents have expressed concerns about tuition fees next year, citing frequent complaints that Zoom lectures aren’t worth £9250 a year.

However, this conversation looks set to reach a fever pitch, with the possibility of the government lowering the maximum rate of tuition fees. This has led universities to have concerns that certain subjects could be disbanded for good. A particular concern is the arts as the government focuses more on STEM subjects. This is despite universities being a potential tool in the economic and cultural recovery.

Next week, I will share the results of a survey I conducted with a diverse group of students about their experiences in accommodation during Covid-19 this year. For now, remember that the student backlash got so intense that rent strikes were threatened and then happened. This is not going to be an isolated, momentous event; another one could be right around a corner, except this time it’s the parents on the warpath….

Something’s (still) in the water

After a year filled with rent strikes and issues with student engagement, you might think that this was going to be the cumulation of the damage caused by the marketisation of Higher Education. However, there is going to be some more stress and heartbreak on the horizon. In the build-up to A-Level results day, parents are already preparing to file appeals against schools and colleges.

The worry is that teacher bias and special educational needs of certain children may negatively affect their grades and chances of entering university. Students from the North East are already disadvantaged when it comes to university admissions, with only 15.9% of students from Oxford being from low-income areas.

Meanwhile, universities including Oxford are fearful that there may be too many admissions made. This is as a result of more students receiving top grades. Institutions are already thinking of how they can incentivise students to defer their positions to the following academic year. Of course this could lead to further issues next year.

A crossroads for Higher Education

It’s pretty clear: the Higher Education sector is at a crossroads. At the end of both options is a complex intersection, with academic enrichment, student pastoral support, the financial implications of the pandemic and public perception all being controlled by a single traffic light. Is it going to be a smooth ride next year, or are we going to be looking at another car crash from the rear-view mirror?

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