By Cerys Jones | Comment Editor
The Welsh Government’s enforcement of local lockdown restrictions in Cardiff was implemented on September 27 and has generated further uncertainty amongst university students studying during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Whilst primary and secondary schools returned to their facilities in a phased manner from the beginning of June, universities as independent autonomous institutions were made to develop their own strategy whilst adhering to guidelines set by each country’s university regulator.
A non-conventional freshers experience
Consequent to Welsh Government guidelines, social interactions are limited to reduce the surge in COVID-19 infections to fuel national recovery.
The introduction of the “rule of six” restricts social gatherings to a maximum of six people in private homes and alternative outdoor spaces, thus eliminating the possibility for a conventional first-year experience.
In some universities within the UK, first-year students in halls of residences will live in bubbles composed of people who study the same degree in an attempt to reduce the transmission of disease across University campuses.
Members of each ‘bubble’ will share a timetable to prevent and restrict exposure to other bubbles.
The implications of online learning
Online tuition has become subject to scrutiny among students regarding its negative impact on their education quality. The transition from the physical to the virtual classroom has generated difficulty for both students and members of staff and has increased the need for self-discipline and self-motivation.
The lack of community has become apparent for students who do not possess the ability to work effectively in an independent manner.
Pre-recorded lectures provide less opportunity for engagement between the student and the lecturer, creating a depersonalised learning environment. Virtual real-time seminars are an educational tool implemented by universities to help students foster accountability and maintain engagement through actively participating with the course.
The increased utilisation of technology for tuition purposes has led to technical difficulties that often occur, thus directly impacting the quality of education that students receive.
It has also caused additional financial stress for students who cannot afford to purchase the technology needed to complete their degrees such as laptops and high-speed Wi-Fi, elements that were not of imperative importance in previous years.
Consequent to the COVID-19 restrictions, university facilities such as lecture theatres, libraries, and communal workspaces are no longer available to students, some of whom often rely on these services to complete their assignments to their full potential. Isabelle Williams, a second-year student at Cardiff University studying Journalism, Media and Culture stated:
“I do believe that online learning will significantly impact my ability to do my degree as I will not have access to university facilities such as libraries, computers or the support from university staff who might not be able to help as well online”.
Freshers events will be held virtually due to the high volume of students relocating to Cardiff from all over the UK. University institutions have been ordered to prohibit private gatherings in halls of residents that exceed the government’s required capacity in private households, and would therefore breach COVID-secure guidelines.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a 10pm curfew on pub and restaurant facilities in an attempt to restrict further dissemination of the disease. This has generated difficulty for first-year students in regard to meeting new people, therefore depriving them of the conventional student experience.
In consequence, students begin to attend pub facilities earlier, thus causing less opportunity for at-home education productivity.
In a series of proposals encompassing easing out of lockdown under safe precaution released in June by Universities UK (UUK), the Vice-Chancellor Membership Organisation stated young people’s social spheres will be smaller than in any other year.
The inability to socialise widely in a conventional form and to become properly acquainted with the new city has deprived first-year students of the traditional student experience, which, in the long-run, will negatively impact the mental health of many students.
The Nightline Listening Service, an organisation providing a personalised service over the phone or through email for students experiencing mental health implications, has become increasingly active as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s implications on young people’s mental health.
Large levels of the debate have been sparked as a consequence of the failure of the university to increase study support or reduce tuition fees. The British Minister of State for Universities recently announced that current students would not be entitled to refunds or compensation for their learning moving online if it was still of “high quality”. She stated:
“We have already seen over the last few months courses being delivered online and virtually at amazing quality and degree and I know the efforts that staff across the sector have made to be able to facilitate that”.
Despite Michelle Donelan’s statement, the government’s department for education has stated:
“If universities are unable to facilitate adequate online tuition, then it would be unacceptable for students to be charged for any additional terms”.
The failure to provide the financial and additional educational support needed during a period of such uncertainty has had a detrimental impact on all students. A recent QS survey revealed that 75% of students believe that tuition fees should be discounted as universities move online to support their students’ studies.
A protest was organised by CardiffUniSocialists, an organisation campaigning for free education and to end austerity and enact socialist change, occurred on Sunday, October 4 at Alexandra Gardens.
The peaceful demonstration adhered to Welsh Government guidelines and social distancing requirements, and those in attendance were required to wear face coverings and maintain a 2-metre distance from one another. A spokesperson for CardiffUniSocialists stated:
“The exploitative capitalist system we live in will sacrifice the education, experience, and safety of ordinary students and workers unless we get organised and stop them”.
The protests provided students with the opportunity to voice their opinions regarding university and government policies which directly impact the quality of their education. Many students have expressed disappointment as they do not believe that they have been fairly considered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unclear and insufficient communication from university institutions has led students to question their decisions in continuing their studies this year.
Many have formed tenancy agreements that they would not have otherwise made, as online tuition provides the opportunity for students to study at home, which would have decreased their eventual student debt.
It’s evident that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted University students, however, these impacts have been overlooked and ignored by the government.
Initiatives have been put in place to aid other sectors in society, however, the student population has been left to adapt to this new method of learning and unfamiliar lifestyle alone.
Students deserve better support to navigate this period of uncertainty.