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Universities and Covid-19

university students in their graduation gowns throwing their graduation caps in the air

Over the past year, all of us, in one way or another, have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, I have been at university and have experienced so many wrongdoings by both the Government and the university I attend. Anyone who has been at university over the past year will know how much has really been going on at UK universities, that has miraculously been able to stay out of the press, the only thing that has made the press are anything that can shine university students in a negative light and to blame us for the spreading of Coronavirus.

In today's blog post, my aim is to inform you all of what has really been happening at UK universities throughout the past year. I can, of course, only speak about my own experience with my own university, but I know of other students at other universities who have had similar and completely different experiences to my own, which I would also like to air in this post. I am in no way completely slating universities as I am aware that this was a situation that none of us has ever experienced before and didn't know how to handle, however, as time has gone by, there are definitely more things that they could have done under the circumstances to make all students' experiences better.

So let's go back to the beginning. The Covid cases in the UK really started to pick up at the beginning of March 2020 and that started a discussion about whether universities should still be open. From the 9th to the 13th of March I was on placement in a nursery and it was during this week that things really started to pick up and suddenly all these rules were being put in place, such as having to wash your hands on arrival and parents not being allowed to come into the nursery and having to drop/pick-up their kids from the front gate. When I returned to uni on the 16th of March, it was practically a ghost town. Baring in mind I was in at 9am on a Monday, which is usually a time where uni is quite busy, there was probably a lot less than half the amount of people there would usually be. When I went in the next day, there was about the same amount of people there and we actually got sent home after an hour due to various services within the uni no longer doing face-to-face classes and then later that day it was confirmed that our uni would be moving completely online. We were given the next two weeks off, the rest of that week we had off so anyone who was in accommodation and wanted to go home could do so, and the second week was so our tutors could change the rest of their lesson plans to suit online learning.

Due to the loss of two weeks, I assumed that our upcoming assignments would be pushed back by two weeks. However, what we were instead told was that we wouldn't be receiving a two week extension as 'we hadn't lost any teaching weeks'. And yet, my tutors were then trying to cram five weeks worth of teaching into three weeks. On top of this, they were given a month's extension for something they had to fill in for the university due to the two weeks they had to spend putting in place something for our online learning. Obviously, I can understand why they were given this extension, but if we also lost two weeks then how come we didn't get that extension?

I didn't have too much of a problem with online learning at first as I could fully understand it was what we needed to do so as to prevent the spreading of the virus. However, I then found they were cramming so much into these PowerPoints and these ended up taking two days to look through when normally it would take four hours. On top of that, we only had an hour of face-to-face interaction with our tutors two days a week for about three weeks. We were luckily given a no detriment policy, which at my university meant that if any of our second semester grades were 2% or more lower than our semester one grades, they would either not be counted in our overall grade or we had the opportunity to resubmit them without a limit on what we could get on the resubmit (usually we would only be able to resubmit if we failed and then our resubmit result would be capped at 40%, which is a third). One of my grades met this requirement and I decided not to resubmit, so my overall grade for the year went up from 73% to 75%, meaning I got a first for second year.

My main problems with UK universities and their handling of the pandemic (at least, from my perspective) comes from September 2020 onwards. They didn't inform us what was happening regarding our teaching until a week before we were due to return, with our timetables only being released a matter of days before we were due in. They said they wanted us to have 50% teaching online and 50% face-to-face teaching. I do three modules each semester and this worked out to having two modules online, with the teaching for both being an hour and a half and then one module was face-to-face teaching and we were in university for this module for six hours. Usually, we would have four hours of teaching per module. My issue with the way they did this is the two online modules we had very little teaching time for and what often happened was that we would have to teach ourselves a lot of the module and were sent many YouTube links which we could have watched for free instead of paying £9250 for them (I'll talk more about the financial side of things in a bit). In regards to the in-person module lasting six hours, I also found this ridiculous as they only really needed four hours for this maximum and I feel the remaining two hours would have been better spent split between the two online modules so we could have more in-depth discussions.

We were also told in September that we wouldn't be getting a no-detriment policy as 'the situation was already predicted and our teaching wouldn't be affected'. First of all, the situation could never have been predicted to last that long and regardless of that, a lot of our teaching was still online and you do not get the same quality of teaching/learning online as you do in person. Yes, I'm not the most sociable of people and there was definitely some benefits to online learning, such as not having to spend over two hours a day commuting and being able to spend that time getting on with my work, however, as human beings we need human contact and it is so much easier to share your thoughts on the work in-person than it is in a teams meeting. It honestly felt like a slap in the face to be told that our first semester would not include a no-detriment policy as we were pretty much teaching ourselves the content and it was a lot harder to have a one-to-one discussion with our tutors online compared to in-person. Even with the module that I had in-person, we had to self-isolate two times, meaning we lost four weeks of promised in-person teaching and I think anyone with a brain can realise the effect this would have on both students and tutors, as students weren't getting their promised teaching and tutors were having to adapt, yet again, their in-person teaching to suit online learning.

What I'm going to say next isn't isolated to Covid alone and has actually happened before Covid and will probably continue long after this pandemic is over. For those of you who have never gone to university, students typically have two lots of hand-in dates - the first after Christmas and the second in May/June. We start our Christmas holidays the week before the schools start there's, have hand-in dates at the beginning of January and go back for semester two at the end of January/beginning of February. The issue with this is that all tutors go on their annual leave during this period, meaning that if we are having any problems with our work we cannot contact them as they won't reply until they come back off leave, which is after we have handed our assignments in. We are expected to have already come across any problems we may have about our work before tutors go on leave, even though the assignment will have only been set no more than two weeks before this date. This creates so much unnecessary stress for students and I honestly believe that if tutors aren't expected to work throughout Christmas then neither should students.

After Christmas, we all got put back into another national lockdown. This annoyed me in many ways (as I'm sure it did with the rest of the population) as there was some hope of us being able to go back to university after Christmas, and at this point, this was pushed back by at least a couple of months. It annoyed me how journalists were reporting that university students were no longer being able to go to in-person classes, even though we hadn't really been to a proper in-person class since the beginning of March 2020 (I'm aware I still had an in-person class once a week, however, most students either went into uni once or twice across September to December or not at all). It was at this point that I realised that it was highly unlikely I would ever be able to step foot into my university again, which was a shame in many ways as this was somewhere I had spent three years of my life and I never even got to say goodbye to anyone or thank my tutors in person for their help over the years.

In February, Boris announced the 'road map to freedom'. This roadmap did not include university students in the slightest. I think part of this reasoning was because students tend to move between their home town and university town, but I'm sure the main reason was that according to the Government, we don't exist. If any Government officials had actually bothered to talk to students, they would have realised that the majority of students who didn't commute to university were actually already in their university town/city. Throughout this time of the easing of restrictions, we were given a date of the 12th of April as when they would make an announcement regarding universities reopening. Before this date, only those on practical courses were allowed to go back. I'm fairly certain this announcement was made after this date, but the Government decided universities could not re-open and they would re-evaluate their decision on the 17th of May. Both dates were a bit of a kick in the teeth as by the 12th of April we only had one, at a push two, weeks of teaching left and by the 17th of May we were meant to have finished teaching entirely and have already handed our assignments in. Luckily, my university had already promised us if teaching was disrupted for the second semester (which it very much was, to say the least) they would extend it by three weeks and these three extra weeks were intended for teaching, meaning our assignments would be due in at the end of May instead of at the beginning of May. For my course, we didn't get the extra teaching really as its original purpose was to be in-person, which we couldn't do (thanks, Boris), but these three weeks were used as drop-in sessions to ask any questions we had about our assignments, which were actually quite useful. It also meant I could be a bit more relaxed with my approach to my assignments and could afford to take a day or two off if I needed to focus on my mental health or to just have a proper think about what to put in my assignments, instead of just staring at my laptop screen trying to force myself to write something.

As it's my final year, this means I should be graduating next month. I'm not entirely sure what's going on with my graduation, and I know graduation ceremonies are varying for each university, but as far as I know, I am having a virtual graduation next month and then my proper graduation should be at the beginning of January, for both my year and the year above. I'm not entirely sure whether I'm going to attend this as the thought of having to walk in front of a load of people that I don't know terrifies me and I'm not sure whether we're allowed guests as normally we're allowed two people per person, but as there are two years graduating, I'm not sure whether there will be the space to allow this (or whether there will still be any restrictions in place that allow it at all). I know some universities have completely cancelled their graduation and I know others are doing an outdoor graduation this summer. Regardless of whether you get a graduation or not, you should just be super proud of yourself for being able to complete university at all, let alone during a global pandemic.

I know international students have more than likely had a completely different experience from me. I know some have been stuck in an unfamiliar country and I know others have been stuck in their own country having to engage in live classes in a completely different timezone, sometimes in the middle of the night. I can't really comment on this too much as I haven't experienced it, but if you are an international student and have written a blog post on your perspective of attending university during a global pandemic, please feel free to link that post in the comments below. Or, if you attend university in your home country or you work at a university and have written a blog post on your perspective of working at a university during a pandemic, please feel free to leave those links in the comments below also.

It's fair to say that being at university during a pandemic has been no fun by any means. I have seen many people online who don't attend university saying students should stop complaining and that if you don't like the restrictions you should just defer a year and get a job or take a gap year and go travelling (that was a genuine suggestion by someone on Twitter - to go travelling when lots of countries have their borders closed and it's not safe to go anywhere). We couldn't just defer for a year unless we had a proper reason (being in a pandemic was not one of them) and if we did want to take a year out because of the pandemic, we would have had to drop out and reapply for the next year and I'm not being funny, but I wasn't about to have spent two years at uni to drop out and then try and reapply but not get back in.

As a final point, it's safe to say that every single student is annoyed they have had to pay full price to sit in their room and watch a YouTube video, which they could have done for free. I know the majority of students take out a loan (myself included) but why should it be acceptable for us to pay back that loan when we've had access to much fewer resources compared to previous years? I have signed many petitions to get the cost reduced and have either heard nothing or have been told that they believe the current cost reflects the service we are getting, even though the cost doesn't reflect the service we get in normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic when none of us has actually been in university in over a year.

I hope this post has given you somewhat of an insight into what it's been like to be a university student during the past year. If you have any questions or if you are also a student and feel I have missed a key point out, please feel free to comment them down below.

Love Beth xx

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