It’s been two months of lockdown and British unis are still keeping students in the dark

Term’s a few months away and most of us don’t know what’s going on

Last week, the University of Manchester became the first uni in the UK to confirm that all lectures would be taught online in semester one. A few days ago, the University of Cambridge confirmed there will be “no face-to-face lectures” for the entirety of the 2020/2021 year. The Cambridge story was on every single group chat and shared on every Facebook group, with students’ knee jerk reactions being: “I hope that doesn’t happen to us”, before being hit with the sudden thought: “What is happening to us”?

You’ll remember the craziness of mid-March when students across the UK scrambled home to their families and hometowns with news of unis closing due to the outbreak of COVID-19. And yeah, it was all a bit of a shitshow. Unis frantically rushed decisions under pressure amidst the chaos, but you can’t really blame them. After all, literally no one had a clue how to handle what was going on. No one really thought how September and beyond might work either, because it felt ages away.

Fast-forward two months: We’re well into May, and we still have no real idea what’s waiting for us in term one. Unis have had a long time to get their shit together and tell students what’s going on. Some, like Cambridge and Manchester, have been very clear about their plans for September, others haven’t, and with the start of next year getting closer and closer the endless vague statements just aren’t good enough.

Look, we’re fully aware students aren’t the only ones hit by the pandemic, even if we’re entering into a completely fucked job market. We’ve also come to terms with the fact that semester one will be impacted severely by the health crisis. We know it’s likely all lectures will be moved online and that our teaching experience is going to be substantially different from previous years. And yeah, it’s not ideal, but it’s nothing we can really avoid. The issue isn’t about lectures staying online, the issue is that we don’t really know much else.

Take Exeter, for example, who confirmed this morning that for term one, lectures will be “delivered online or developed into guided online resources supported by face-to-face teaching in a safe environment.”

The uni stated as long as it is safe to do so and with protective measures in place, it will “open its campuses” and “enable access to facilities and face-to-face teaching combined with online learning”, with plans to release “more detail on our vision for teaching and learning in the weeks ahead.”

Exeter’s statement is a classic example of confusing uni PR. Sure, it all sounds good on paper, but what does it actually mean? A lot of unis have talked about a “blend of online and face-to-face teaching” like it’s a coffee, but very few have been specific about what that will really involve for students coming back in September.

I can tell you what it probably means. Like Edinburgh, it probably means lectures will continue online until at least January, because as their VC said, packing hundreds of students into lecture theatres isn’t “safe or possible”. It will probably mean small-group teaching like History seminars will happen irl, just in bigger spaces like lecture halls (again, something Edinburgh was quite up-front about). Science labs will probably still go ahead, just with reduced numbers allowed in at a time, as Glasgow recently announced. Staff will probably work on staggered shifts and social distancing will be maintained on campus. It’s not rocket science; what unis need to do is fairly obvious. So why are so many of them still being so vague?

True, it’s not the uni experience we want, it’s definitely not worth nine grand, but it’s really not that hard for other unis to make a simple yet clear announcement like Edinburgh’s and give the students something to work with.

With all that in mind, it isn’t surprising Year 13s want to defer, or that current students are considering dropping out. Unis stand to lose a lot of money because of it. But by putting off the day they’ll inevitably have to follow Manchester’s lead and pull the plug on lectures, they’re making it harder for school leavers to make an informed decision. How are you supposed to decide whether to defer or drop out because you’re uni’s online, if you don’t know actually know your uni’s online yet? It all feels very cynical, as though by making it sound like life will be back to normal by November, unis will retain students and their tuition fees. Whether or not this is the case, that’s how it’s coming across, and that is exactly why they need to be more clear.

Students understand the situation is difficult for everyone, and whether a uni moves lectures online will have a huge impact on a lot more than just its income. But again, it’s been two months. If some unis can pull their finger out and make a decision now, why can’t others?

It’s not just the general feeling of uncertainty that’s the issue: students have our own plans and decisions to make. We need to organise our mass migration up and down the country. We need to find flats and houses to live in in our university towns and cities. We need to think about how to afford our rent and find part-time jobs to supplement our student maintenance grants. All of these important decisions need to be made, and soon, but university students have simply been left behind by our nation’s response to the health crisis, totally uninformed as to what will happen in September.

I’ll admit, I was a fan of the solutions unis came up with for term three this year. Online seminars were given to finish off course material and tutors were quick with their email responses. Many universities even announced “no detriment” policies for end of year exams and assessments and they were a total godsend.

It wasn’t all smoothly handled by everyone, sure, but it is important to remember these end-of-year arrangements were made in emergency circumstances. We are now settling into life with COVID-19 and getting to grips with accepting a new “normal”. The arrangements made for semester one need to be better than what we came up with in March. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be.

If the coronavirus briefings are anything to go by, unis have been left to their own devices to decide how to navigate semester one, as evidenced by their contrasting responses so far. It makes sense some might try and delay until they have a clear a picture as possible, but the longer they delay, the more they’re fucking over students. Cambridge undergrads are understandably gutted they’re not having lectures next year, but at least they know.

What’s annoying is we’re all going to get to the same point eventually. Most of the teaching will be online, and face-to-face where safe and possible. It’s painfully obvious we’ll all end up where Manchester is now. But until unis are clear about the specifics, students are unable to get on with their lives. We have important decisions to make now we have finished exams and are able to think about next year, and it’s unfair for unis to keep students in the dark about next year’s arrangements. There’s no excuse for vague statements about “blended teaching” anymore. Unis owe their students the transparency of Cambridge, Manchester and Edinburgh. They need to make a decision, and fast.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• Cambridge confirms ‘no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year’

• Compare: Is your uni letting students defer a year to avoid online teaching?

• Live updates: The universities cancelling face-to-face lectures next year