Has Covid killed our campus?

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What’s the ‘new normal’ at uni? Going back for me and thousands of other students will be different, the environment strange, and the higher-ups will muddle through as usual. But inevitably our tuition fees will stay at an all-time high while our employability plummets to a likely all-time low. The coming months could be disastrous, but hey, there’s room for hope.

One thing’s for sure: there will be far more teaching at a distance. Whether one calls it ‘blended learning’ or something else, it is likely that universities will turn to a balance of face-to-face and remote learning. Some fellow students I spoke to were eager for these more accessible, convenient online lectures; others were concerned that fewer in-person contact hours would mean a lower quality of education and worse value for money. University of Sussex student Rianna told me: “It’s frustrating as they’re keeping the details very vague… we could only be receiving a couple of hours of teaching on campus per week.”

Particularly problematic are more hands-on courses. For those who need access to labs, studios, and specialist facilities, it is doubtful social distancing can be implemented to a sufficient standard. Courses may need to be dramatically restructured. Those who had planned trips abroad may find themselves with an uncertain schedule, knowing that new modules may have to be cancelled anyway.

Beyond study, the entire nature of university life is up in the air. Students face the gloomy prospect of a socially-distanced campus, with dramatic restrictions on living arrangements: a university with no nights out, no societies, no gathering together in someone’s room at 3am to eat pizza and drink too much. Far from home, maybe for the first time ever, there is a danger that student services will be severely stretched so how will they cope?

Regulations are undoubtedly necessary. Adam Tickell,  vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, may optimistically anticipate “welcoming thousands of students to the campus” in September, but freshers’ week is a breeding ground for illness at the best of times; it has the potential to spread coronavirus like wildfire.

Universities have tried to reassure, with debatable success. Some institutions may place restrictions on routes around campuses, while others may implement delivery services in libraries, or timeslots in shared leisure facilities.

Another Sussex student, Elaina, told me that “their communication has actually been excellent”, with emails keeping students ‘in the loop’ as much as possible. As a vulnerable person, she commended staff for the manner in which they handled the pandemic, saying she was put in touch with the right individuals to give her more specific help. However, Rianna said that she and her friends have found the university’s response to the crisis “more frustrating than reassuring” due to a “lack of guidance” from the beginning.

Part of the problem is that university officials themselves do not know the severity of the crisis they will face in the coming months. As such, they can often only offer vague, provisional, speculative advice, which is often little comfort to an anxious student.

With so much to worry about, the fact that students must continue to pay £9,250 per year is ridiculous. University is expensive anyway, but to have to pay this amount for reduced contact hours, restricted access to facilities, restructured courses, and repressed social lives, is ludicrous. We will graduate in a post-Brexit, post-pandemic economy, after struggling through cobbled-together degrees. Then we will have to find work using CVs that stalled during lockdown, competing against those barely older than us but who were able to get extensive work experience. With the quality of teaching so much impeded, surely students should receive some sort of compensation?

I hope that the crisis will ease, that universities will have to implement only minor restrictions, and that learning can continue in all its glory. I also have the vain hope that students like Rianna, Elaina, and me are recompensed for lost teaching.

In the meantime, we will continue to try and salvage our employability by setting up, or working for, small businesses, blogs, YouTube channels – building skills however we can. We will get through this eventually. Yes, it could be disastrous, it may be delightful. It will hopefully be fine.

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