Last week, many universities, including the London School of Economics, King’s College London, the University of Durham and Manchester Metropolitan University, announced plans to replace face-to-face teaching with video lectures and online seminars, end term early, or cancel exams.
Students had signed petitions urging their universities to make the shift to online teaching and learning as fast as possible. Several universities have reported cases of coronavirus on campus, and students have voiced concerns over transparency.
Some medical schools, including at Cambridge, are ending clinical teaching. But healthcare students are worried about their exposure to the virus. “I feel as though my university has not taken appropriate measures to minimise risk,” says Rachel English, a third-year occupational therapy student at the University of Salford, where she is on hospital placement.
“I am exposed to the virus daily. There has been very little support to advise us on what to do. I return to student halls with hundreds of students who I am then putting at risk.”
The upheaval follows disruption to teaching and assessment for many students during a month of strikes over pay and pensions by their lecturers and other staff members.
Matthew McEvoy, a first year economics and finance student at Queens University Belfast, is worried about how much teaching time he’s lost. “This means I’ve paid like a year’s student fees and missed loads of my education I was owed,” he says. “I’m more worried about missing things I’ll need for next year’s modules.”
While official government advice is that universities should remain open, self-isolation and the uncertainty over how long students will have accommodation for could exacerbate widespread mental health problems on campus.
Brandon Papineau, a fourth-year linguistics student at Edinburgh, is currently in self-isolation alone in his flat after returning from the US with a cough and aches. “It’s a bit distressing to be here by myself because I am unable to shop for my own food and sanitary items and have to rely on the goodwill of my incredible friends to make deliveries,” he says. “As a student who suffers from social isolation anxiety, being alone for a week and isolated from my peers is not easy.”
Papineau, who is from the US, says his distress is exacerbated by watching events unfold in his home country, where Harvard has already asked students to move out, combined with the worries shared by many international students over visas.
“We have no idea what the future six months will hold,” he says. “It could mean that visa holders will not be allowed back into the country on our university’s sponsorship. I would hate to go back to the States and be stuck there unable to complete my studies.”
For other students from overseas, there are fears around the effectiveness of the UK government’s public health strategy. Zehra Jafree, a second-year history and international relations student at the LSE, has rushed back to her family in Hong Kong after securing a rare space on a flight through a waitlist. “I would rather be in a place that knows what it’s doing rather than a place that’s about to be sucker punched by something they’re not ready for.”
Moving to online learning and assessment is likely to be a challenging transition for UK universities, forcing them to rapidly change how their courses operate and putting pressure on digital systems.
Daniel Wittenberg, a fourth year studying modern and medieval languages at Cambridge, says he is “extremely worried” about his upcoming final exams, since students have already been revising for traditional closed-book assessments. Instead, he would like to see exams cancelled, and existing grades used to set a grade for final-year students. “If that means that they have to be on the generous side, then so be it,” he says.
Wittenberg is also worried that his college accommodation may be shut down over easter. “I’m left wondering whether I will ever actually be back at university,” he says. “I’m really concerned that [going home] would put my parents, who are vulnerable to this virus, at a greater level of risk.”
Studying and being assessed online isn’t an option for all courses. Emily Woods, a Canadian student at the East 15 Acting School, is in her final year. “Acting is all face to face,” she says. “The final term for us is mostly showcases to the industry so it will impact all our chances at getting agents outside of uni.”