The emergence of the COVID-19 Pandemic in December 2019 caused an abrupt halt in almost all activity across the globe, presenting significant challenges for the entire world. In the United Kingdom, the vast majority of university students experienced yet another disruption to their studies following the series of strikes over Christmas and Easter.
As lockdown restrictions ease and tighten, one can only wonder what exactly studying will look like for us at York as we return.
The University’s aim is to “deliver as much face-to-face teaching as possible and to deliver online teaching when needed”, as stated on the COVID-19 Updates page. By now, we should have all received emails from Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffrey and from our respective academic departments detailing the ways in which they wish to move forward with the academic year. While some things are clear, such as the fact that during the autumn term, all large lectures will be solely delivered online, questions such as “will study spaces other than the library be ready and open for use” and “will the University change its COVID-19 policy alongside government policy” remain largely unanswered.
One key area of worry for many students across the UK is finance and tuition fees. £9,250 is already a lot of money to pay for higher education, and now that learning at many UK universities is moving online for at least a term, many students feel that it is unreasonable to charge the same price for what is undeniably less. Various petitions circulated throughout lockdown prompting government responses, with one receiving over 100,000 signatures. However, much to the dismay of the petitioners, the government held firm, stating that: ‘university students in England still have to pay their full tuition fees even if their courses are taught online in the autumn’. In the eyes of the government and universities, the quality of learning will remain of the same high standard, therefore there is no need to lower fees. Despite this, universities like York are working to provide affected students with financial aid, such as those who experience financial difficulties and those whose parents or carers may have been furloughed.
The shift to online learning as a result of COVID-19 risks promoting further inequalities amongst students and has raised serious concerns about equal access to learning. With talk in societies as senior as the World Economic Forum of digital learning possibly “persisting post pandemic”, one has to properly consider the implications of this for disadvantaged and disabled students. Despite the fact that it may seem like a given to have a laptop, access to the internet and a place to study efficiently when attending university, this is not always the case. These things are a privilege that many of us are incredibly lucky to have. Inequality amongst university students in the UK is already rampant and the “relationship between higher education and social inequalities” only continues to grow more and more complex and difficult to navigate for underprivileged students.
Disadvantaged students under the age of 21 in full time education are already at a higher risk of dropping out of university 8.8% compared with their more “well off”counterparts at 6%, a government study from 2016-17 showed. Figures such as these are only set to get worse as learning moves online in universities across the country due to the virus. According to a study titled: “Promises and Pitfalls of Online Education”, students from disadvantaged backgrounds “consistently perform worse in an online setting compared to face-to-face classroom learning.”
Access to learning under COVID-19 restrictions also poses concerns for students with disabilities and long term health conditions. Issues already faced by such students risk being further exacerbated under new university conditions. With universities unable to deliver face-to-face provisions due to the pandemic, many disabled students will undoubtedly be worried about what university holds for them at the beginning of the new academic year.
Section 91(9) of the Equality Act 2010 “requires that higher and further education providers make reasonable adjustments for disabled applicants and students”. With COVID-19, further adjustments will need to be made, posing difficulties for both the education providers and students. As stated by Dyslexia and Disability coordinator at Leeds Trinity University, Stephen Campbell, often the problem with “reasonable adjustments” can mean placing universities in a sort of Catch-22 ethical paradox.” This is because the term “disabled student … encompasses students with a vast array of different impairments and needs”. Therefore, whereas students experiencing mental health issues may find large lecture halls difficult to deal with and panic inducing, students with physical impairments and medical conditions may find their energy lessened by limited teaching activities. Although the University of York offers extensive support for disabled students, there are legitimate concerns surrounding what can be done to provide every single bit of support they may need under COVID-19.
As always, it is impossible to know what the following academic year holds. However, throughout the emergence of COVID-19, there is undoubtedly an added layer of uncertainty and concern. Despite huge scientific developments surrounding the virus being made each day, little remains known amongst the scientific community surrounding the new disease. With some governments choosing to follow scientific advice and others choosing to take things into their own hands, and with new government restrictions affecting different parts of the country and globe, one can only wonder what the following year at Universities such as York will hold. Especially for the large number of international students.