With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, universities are making plans to move the first term online for all students next year. This, of course, would have a huge toll on the new intake of students. Although this may seem like a trivial issue in the bigger picture, it could be detrimental in the long run, especially for students who may have struggled with the jump from school to the university teaching style. Moreover, it is not just about the academic aspect of this plan, but also the social aspect. First year is an important aspect of students’ lives, freshers’ week is not just about going out, but also about adjusting to a completely new way of life and living away from home. Without this week of adjustment, students could be left feeling even more alone, risking impact on the rest of their university lives.
Another issue with this plan is that many students would be unwilling to even attempt the first term online, deferring their offers until September 2021. This would then mean that “institutions will face a dangerous cut in income” as Nick Hillman warns in an interview with The Guardian stating that “some universities will start falling over, Universities will play a valuable part in pulling us out of the recession that is coming, so it is more important than ever that they survive.” There is no plan that will satisfy everyone, but it is clear that many first years will not want to go to university in September if all it involves is sitting in their rooms at home all day. Students will not be willing to pay for this, but universities cannot survive without their money. It is a vicious cycle with no satisfying outcome.
By essentially forcing these first years into a far from ideal situation, there will be long-term consequences as this first term is truly important as part of finding their way and learning how teaching works at university. Moreover, students are going to feel extremely isolated in their rooms by not knowing anyone on their course to ask questions and seek advice from, placing even more pressure on them than a first-year already has in a normal situation.
In addition to these general concerns about subjects, it will be extremely difficult to teach subjects which need the practical aspects in order to be teachable, such as Drama. With subjects which have the maximum amount of contact hours, such as Medicine, it will be almost impossible to get students used to this new high standard. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum with the minimum contact hours, such as History, it will be hard for students to know how much work to do in the spare time they have and make it even more difficult to motivate themselves to actually do the work.
All of these arguments show that there are many issues raised from missing this first term, even if adjustments are made to put it online. It will mean that further adjustments will have to be made after this for the second term. Professor Alec Cameron’s, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, suggestion to start first-years in January is a more beneficial option for the students as everyone would be able to begin together and, therefore, give each other the support which would just not be available if they were to start online.
There is no easy option. In a time of ongoing uncertainty, it is not clear whether social distancing will still be in place in September or if Aston University’s idea to just start in January will even be a possibility. However, it is important to take into consideration the needs of students and the increased stress that starting online would put them through. Although there is no ideal outcome, there are clearly options which would be preferable.
Ana Hill Lopez-Menchero