‘I don’t get how they’re justifying the £9,250’: UoM students react to continued online teaching

It’s a mixed bag


For many students, the idea of returning to university signals a return to normality: socialising, the sense of purpose given by studying into the night, the option to sit on our phones at the pub rather than in our bedrooms. The University of Manchester’s decision to move all lectures online for semester one of the 2020/2021 semester proves this idealised return will come much later, much more gradually than students had hoped.

Remote study has been encouraged by experts; it is noted by a University spokesperson that “a lecture theatre environment does not easily support spatial separation”. But some students are concerned that while remote study is in the interest of public health and helps to flatten the curve, these positive measures are offset against severe disadvantages for international students, disabled students, language teaching, and the strained relationship between quality of teaching and the expense of tuition fees.

Manchester students have voiced their concerns and expressed their doubts on how remote study will replicate the student experience, aid mental health amongst students, and discourage international students from applying in the future. Being the first student cohort to have confirmed provisions against COVID-19, their reactions demonstrate the uncertainty and expense of quality students are likely to experience in the coming months. Here’s what they have to say.

‘I would rather have teaching online than risk people’s health’

Reactions have been mixed, from pragmatism to fatalism. Jake Whittle, a third-year biosciences student said: “I think it’s the right thing to do, I would rather have teaching online than risk people’s health.”

Other students have expressed concern for the impact remote study will have on quality of teaching, and questioned whether this depreciation in quality should be mitigated by reduced tuition fees.

‘It is an absolute scandal that these returning students will be forced to fork up £9,250’

Iona Mills is a third-year zoology student about to enter her final year. Having been recalled from her research placement in Soutpansberg, South Africa, she had been keen to make up for a lost student experience during her final year. She said: “Worried that it’s gonna ruin final year and will be a completely different experience – but I understand why they’re doing it.”

“I don’t think we should be paying the same [tuition fees] as we would normally but I understand the uni can’t afford to pay us back so that should be down to the government.”

Federica Donald, a third-year electrical engineering student said: “We’ve always been told you can watch the podcasts but you can’t beat teaching in person. I don’t understand how they’re justifying our quality of teaching won’t be sacrificed so they won’t lower our fees partially for that semester. They’ve announced it so early and moved the term dates around without giving us a reason why. It just seems more unclear than before they sent the email.”

Aiden Robinson, final year English literature, says he is concerned about the welfare of incoming first years and retuning second years, saying: “Thank God I was aborted from university in the second semester of my third year. In contrast to the cynics and depressives worrying about the depreciated value of our degrees, I hold the more optimistic view that working under these stressful conditions testifies to our ability to endure stress, stay motivated, and improvise. With the rapid spread of coronavirus, I’m afraid my year must stay humble and accept that our drastic expulsion from the University was the safest measure in these unprecedented times.”

He added: “For first and second years however, my optimism falls short. It is an absolute scandal that these returning students will be forced to fork up £9,250 of government money which they will then have to repay, only to be given an education comparable to ‘Tutors.com’. Not only will they be deprived of social interaction, they will also be starved of watching academics passionately deliver their lectures.”

Meanwhile, international students have expressed concern that remote study is inaccessible and unaffordable for them, with a complete lack of provisions for students operating in their home countries on different time zones, and an expectation that international students should pay thousands more than UK students in tuition fees for a reduced quality in teaching.

‘I would never spend this money or waste my time at uni online, especially as an international student’

Kira Rea is a geography Master’s student from Portland, Oregon. Initially based in Fallowfield, she returned to North America in March in anticipation of UK lockdown. She voiced disappointment as she told me what she thought of the provisions made by the university for international students: “International students from North America pay roughly £30k in tuition and cost of living fees a year for undergrad and postgrad in Manchester. I did end up moving home in March and completing my work from the US but I would never spend this money or waste my time at a uni online, especially as an international student. All my Zoom classes the last two months are scheduled for what is usually midnight to 8am for me so as you can imagine I have a horrible sleep schedule, I can’t imagine doing that for a full year.”

On whether she expects a reduced number of international students applying to Manchester in the future, she said: “I don’t think Manchester should be expecting many new international students for 2020 with the costs we’re still being charged. I just paid £8k to the uni last week and was told me there’s no way I’ll get a refund or even partial compensation.”

‘I think the engagement and benefit of seminars and tutorials will be difficult to replicate online’

There is also concern for how the move to online study will affect language learning at the university, which often relies on face-to-face teaching in small seminar groups to aid students’ pronunciation and speaking and respond to individual needs. The university emphasised that they are “keen to continue with other face-to-face activities, such as small group teaching and tutorials” after an online start, but no concrete plans have been put in place yet.

Amy Dewar, a third-year business management and French student said: “I think it’s important for language students that even if lectures are taught online, we’re still able to benefit from socially distanced face to face teaching in the form of seminars and tutorials. I think these are crucial for language learning and practically putting our skills to use, especially since our years abroad were cut so short and our progress restricted.”

“For me, I understand that it might be necessary for lectures to be online and I don’t think this would negatively impact my learning too much – when revising I tend to rely less on the notes I made in physical lectures and more on going back over information I missed by watching lecture podcasts. But I think the engagement and benefit of seminars and tutorials will be difficult to replicate online.”

‘It seems like a slap in the face of all the disabled people who have struggled with their degrees due to not having their full access needs met’

For many years, many disabled students have been asking for remote study to be made possible. Lockdown has proved that remote study, while negatively impacting quality of teaching, can be offered and that the health of students can be a priority. On the university’s representation of the needs of disabled students, Disability Support Officer and Biomedical sciences student Jess Edwards told The Manchester Tab: “Many people have been told that the sort of systems that they are putting in place now weren’t possible, but now that there is a pandemic it suddenly is. Obviously in terms of keeping people safe, the move to online learning for the first semester of next year is a good thing, but it just seems like a slap in the face of all the disabled people who have struggled with their degrees due to not having their full access needs met, when what they are doing now would have helped so many people before.

“At this point, it doesn’t surprise me when access needs are not met, it is something you just come to expect, but I think it does clearly demonstrate how little disabled people are valued in society and how our voices are ignored.”

Disability Support Officer Jasmine Edwards said: “The incredible speed with which the university was able to establish a way to give students the opportunity to study from home is quite a slap in the face to the thousands of disabled students who it has denied adequate support to over the years. The Equality Act 2010 promotes that reasonable adjustments be made to enable disabled people adequate access to services etc. It’s evident deemed reasonable to the university when it concerns their abled students, but not when disabled students equal access to education is threatened.”

She added: “That is not to say, however, that this transition has adequately supported disabled students at all. The lack of accommodations made by the uni concerning DASS exam provisions, closed captions on online materials, and basic compassion for students has been shocking. It is imperative that the university endeavours to support ALL of its students to the best of its ability, rather than simply ignoring the frankly dire situation with which its disabled cohort has been handed.”

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “We understand that the current COVID-19 crisis has created real uncertainty for all our students. But, as a University, we are absolutely committed to delivering the highest-quality learning and student experience at Manchester whilst providing the most up-to-date information.

“Our approach will be informed by the latest UK Government advice, but as we anticipate social distancing measures will be in place for some time, we have taken the decision to conduct all lectures for Semester 1 online, as a lecture theatre environment does not easily support spatial separation. These online lectures will be timetabled to provide structure for students, and many will include live elements such as discussions and Q&A sessions.

“However, we are keen to continue with other face-to-face activities, such as small group teaching and tutorials, as safely and as early as we can. To support our students, we are also planning enhanced welcome and welcome back events and activities, available both on campus and online so nobody is excluded.”

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