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With the season of university offers well under way, some institutions are wooing school leavers with promises of a “totally open campus”, or at least that student life will be “much more like usual”. But academics and students are calling for frankness about the likelihood that disruption to classes and social lives will continue.
Universities are braced for a fierce competition to attract new students this summer, and expect a second chaotic year dealing with A-level results. Many fear that the more elite institutions will take advantage to expand for the second year in a row, which could leave others struggling to recruit enough students at a time they need their £9,250 fees more than ever.
Some universities, including University College London, Sheffield University, Ulster University and Edinburgh University are clear on their websites that new students should expect the “blended” learning that had become standard practice before lockdown, with lectures online and as many smaller seminars or workshops as possible given in person.
However, many university websites do not mention Covid in information for prospective students, and some are overtly upbeat. Solent University Southampton’s website tells new students it hopes that “if lockdown measures continue to be lifted successfully over the summer, the next academic year will look much more like our usual offer”.
Prof Karen Stanton, Solent’s vice-chancellor, says: “We have exciting plans in place to bring all our students back to campus in the ‘new normal’ we’ll be facing.”
She said this included working with the student union on transition and induction events as well as a freshers’ fair, adding: “We also know things may change and if that’s the case, we’re fully prepared to implement all our experience from the past year.”
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, says struggling institutions could be tempted to tell students what they think they want to hear. “They will pitch it as normal or near normal higher education in term 1 of 2021-22,” he says. “After the experience of the current academic year, we know this is unfair to students.”
Marginson says it is highly likely that universities will have to offer both online and face-to-face learning this autumn and winter because of social distancing restrictions, and that they cannot rule out students having to study wholly in their bedrooms again if there is another lockdown.
He believes the government’s Office for Students should be “reining institutions in” that are overpromising. However, he also thinks the government should guarantee some support for struggling universities “if recruitment drops through the floor” because of crisis conditions. “It might never be needed, but the basic security would make a difference. It would allow institutions to use their marketing departments as servant and not master, and would protect students and their families from bad marketing,” he says.
Prof Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, says that the success of the national vaccination programme means he is expecting to run a “completely open university” in September. “We hope to have a normal freshers’ week, sports facilities open and clubs and societies operating,” he says. “Although we absolutely expect that there will be a need for masks and social distancing.”
McKellar says blended learning, with students able to access lectures online whenever they choose, has been so popular that “even if we didn’t still have Covid we would be changing our teaching and offering that in the future”.
But with thousands of students still studying alone at home and angry about paying rent for rooms they cannot use, Hertfordshire is promising a 50% refund on rent in university-owned halls for up to six weeks in the event of another national lockdown.
Prof Anthony Smith, vice-provost for education and student affairs at University College London, says UCL is not assuming it will be back to normal in September. “It’s great to hear that we might have young people vaccinated by August, but it won’t be everybody, and of course we have international students coming.”
UCL is assuming that social distancing will be necessary for a significant part of the next year – possibly all of it – which will limit how students can use the campus. However, it is still aiming to increase the number of in-person seminars and workshops, which Smith says students have “really missed”.
“One of our students said to me the other day ‘We’re fed up and we’re fed up with being fed up’. They want things to be better. But there is a real duty on us to be realistic,” he says. “The scenario could well be that we have a third wave and a strict lockdown. We intend to give them the best possible experience, but we have to be careful not to overpromise.”
Oxford University, too, is cautious, telling prospective students on its website that it is committed to delivering an “outstanding experience” and focusing on “personalised teaching” but “it is too early to say exactly what the situation will be in September”.
Levi Pay, a former head of student services who advises universities on the student experience, recommends school leavers accept their social lives will probably still be “extremely lacking” this autumn, for reasons their university cannot control. “Universities would be sensible to be honest about the fact that the broader student experience remains unlikely to be normal next year,” he says. “If they had been more open about how different this aspect was inevitably going to be this year, they would have helped minimise complaints from students feeling misled.”
He says during a recession university will still be the best option for most students, but he advises them to be honest about their motivation. “If the broader student experience is your main reason for going to university, put it off and find other ways to spend the next year or two – working, volunteering, any way that helps you make ends meet while treading water for a bit,” he says.
Hugh Wylie, who decided to accept a deferred place to study chemistry at Edinburgh University after his A-levels were marked up in last year’s exams fiasco, says that although he has been doing 5am shifts at Tesco this year, he is relieved he put off going to university. “My friends who did go and are now back at home definitely aren’t happy,” he says. “They are sitting in their rooms working alone. Even the ones who are really passionate about what they are doing are getting discouraged, and it shows.”
Wylie understands that his experience this autumn is unlikely to be normal, but thinks that as long as he can be on campus it will be OK. “Obviously it’s going to be different, but I just really hope I can still meet people,” he says.
Aidan Taylor, a first-year architecture student at Leeds Beckett University, says: “I think students should definitely be told the truth about what to expect, even if that’s difficult.” Taylor decided to continue living at home for his first year because of the pandemic, and is glad he did.
But, he says: “I’ve struggled most with having no social life. I was able to make a few friends at the start of term in face-to-face sessions, but I haven’t seen them for months so I do feel disconnected.” He says his university has been supportive, “but this year has been tough”.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: UK universities wooing new students with upbeat promises of a ‘totally open campus’ | Higher education