Universities and ‘blended learning’: Is it time to reduce tuition fees?
In March 2020, universities were forced to close. Halls of residence were basically empty, student houses were left with no students and lecture theatres fell silent. The academic year beginning in September 2020 was a disrupted one by any stretch of the imagination with multiple lockdowns and constant changes to universities policies. But as a new academic year looms on the horizon, many had hoped for a return to the university life we once knew; being able to move between home and our student houses, cheap club nights out and the chance to maybe turn up to that 9am Thursday morning seminar after a chaotic Wednesday night out. Yet more and more universities are failing to commit to this, instead suggesting they will stick with the dreaded ‘blended learning’ as a substitute. But what does this actually mean? Will we ever get an in-person lecture again? And how are we still being charged upwards of £9,000 a year for a university education that is so far from what we signed up for?
As a humanities student at a Russell Group University, I was extremely lucky last year to have a handful of in-person seminars, although across the academic year it probably totalled to no more than 15 hours of in-person teaching, with masks of course. But as one student I spoke to at Cardiff University pointed out, many students did not receive ‘blended learning’: it was all online. “My learning this year has been completely online and so I would disagree that it has been ‘blended’”, they told me. And they have a point. ‘Blended Learning’ for those who don’t know is a style of education where traditional face to face learning is mixed in with online, electronic-based teaching. This means that over the past 18 months students have been able to carry on their studies when it was unsafe to sit in lecture theatres and attend labs, and while it was frustrating and a difficult way of learning for many, it was understandable. Although perhaps the £9,250 a year price tag has seemed unfair.
‘I can’t concentrate in them’, one student who attends Bristol University told me of their online lectures, ‘and they eat into my time so much causing me to fall extremely behind.’ Many students were left feeling that the quality of education fell when things went digital. It wasn’t just hard to find the motivation to sit in your bedroom and watch hours of lectures, but that the lectures themselves were not the high-quality content promised. Admittedly getting to grips with new software and learning to move lectures to online formats was a challenge for those working at universities and their workload did not fall. But through no fault of theirs, the quality of education fell and for many tuition fees felt like a con.
A petition that started in September 2020 calling for tuition fees for the last academic year to be lowered to £3,000 was essentially ignored by the government in a statement made in January of this year, despite gaining over 500,000 signatures. Since the start of the pandemic at least three other similar such petitions have run all gaining close to or over 300,000 signatures each time. In February of 2020 many students could recall professors telling them that watching lectures online instead of attending them in-person was no substitute for the real thing. And yet almost 18 months on, many universities are insisting they are equally as helpful if not more beneficial, as Manchester University confirmed recently - only to face a new wave of criticism from its students.
Increased digital accessibility to university content though has had its upsides. One student who attends Oxford University highlighted to me the benefits of online lectures for those with mobility issues and SpLDs. “Online lectures have been something the disabled student community have been begging for for years'', they said “but they’ve never done it till now because they didn't think students would benefit from them.” They also spoke of the anxiety that being in a room of new people every term can bring, but went on to say that online “it’s impersonal and informal”. In-person teaching at university is the social side that has been forgotten. Many students meet their closest friends by making small talk in those first few lectures and seminars. Student social life is not all about clubbing and flat parties, although we have obviously missed those too.
That’s where the difficulty lies. In England, nightclubs re-opened on the 19th July, and although the assembly in Northern Ireland is yet to comment, it is thought that in Wales and Scotland they will open in August. So by the time students return to their universities in September, we can legally be packed into a nightclub, often in student unions with our peers, but universities will still be insisting on online lectures. University students have often felt neglected throughout this pandemic, with announcements and statements around education focusing on schools, with hardly any mention of those of us paying in higher education. But guidance in England now states “There is no requirement for social distancing or other measures within in-person teaching”.
“I understand why they’re doing blended learning,” another student at Bristol University told me, “but I think the sooner they are able to get back to full in-person teaching the better.” Paying for another year of education that does not feel up to standard has left many feeling abandoned by both government and university institutions. And I admit I have to agree. It feels unfair and hypocritical to allow universities to not fully commit to in-person teaching and charge £9,250 a year while nightclubs reopen and schools' social bubbles end. But only time will tell whether students' concerns are listened to or whether the government will continue to allow university students to be ignored.