After promising in-person teaching in June, leading students across the world to book their journeys to return in September, pay their hefty accommodation deposits, and secure student loans or employment to finance the upcoming year, the University hit students with a bombshell on Monday: all classes, with the exception of medicine and some labs, will be online for at least the next month, with no guarantee of one’s classes being online until week 7. On the surface, student outrage with this announcement may seem unwarranted: we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and as secondary schools see local outbreaks after their reopening last month, along with local lockdowns in Aberdeen and Glasgow, many fear St Andrews could be next. Likewise, with only a maximum of three households being able to meet indoors in Scotland, in-person classes would essentially only include one lecturer and two students, meaning an online approach at this time is the most practical option.
That being said, the timing and justifications of the announcement lead students and parents to wonder why the University could not reveal this information until after many students had already arrived to our small Fife coastal town. With many top universities across the UK declaring their plans for online study months ago, St Andrews does not appear to have any unique excuses for why students were not told until this week. The day of the announcement, Monday 31 August, was one week into international quarantine in halls and the first day in which all students could move into their halls of residence. Students have also begun to pay their tuition and accommodation fees and are either already in St Andrews or are in the process to move. Furthermore, the justifications given for the delay in the news do not explain the sudden change in tone that meant, after a summer believing some classes would be in-person, they are almost all now online. Additionally, those issues posed as barriers to in-person study appear to have been avoidable with better planning.
On Friday 19 June, Principal Sally Mapstone proudly announced that the University would be adopting “dual-mode delivery”, which she stated would be “a blend of traditional, in-person classes, pre-recorded content and live, interactive online provision,” with all larger classes online and in-person classes taking place under physical distancing guidelines. With no further communication about the issue throughout the summer, students had no reason to believe that classes would be in-person: the University insisted that all its students, minus those with travel or health restrictions, return to town, and Scotland appeared to be fighting the virus well, particularly by imposing local lockdowns rather than reintroducing national restrictions. Therefore, the Principal’s announcement on Monday that the University would instead be pursuing a “phased return to in-person teaching” shocked its community, and left many with more questions than answers.
Within the email, Principal Mapstone notes that the decision came after “very careful consideration over the past 48 hours,” yet no major news in Scotland or Fife had been reported in that timeframe. Later on, she states that “it has become apparent in the past few days that the number of students who will arrive to study with us in St Andrews is likely to be greater than anyone had forecast,” citing the August crisis in the calculation of A-Level and Higher results. As a student who received instructions about how to study online, my central message to outsiders of our University is clear: this could have been avoided.
Students were able to signal a request to study online from 21 July, yet the two main criteria for eligibility were, “you expect to be unable to travel to St Andrews by 14 September,” or travel restrictions, and “you expect to be in or near St Andrews by 14 September, but unable to engage in in-person learning”, implying health restrictions such as being high-risk. Other criteria included inability to obtain a visa, financial reasons related to COVID-19, and caring responsibilities. Most notably, any concerns for mental health, preferring to stay at home rather than travel thousands of miles during a pandemic, and general anxiety surrounding the novel coronavirus are not listed in the eligibility to study online. Even more poignant, the University specifically states in eligibility guidelines, “Studying online is not an automatic right for students.”
This system meant that only exceptional cases would be accepted for online study, yet the University appeared dumbfounded on Monday that 9000 undergraduates and postgraduates plan to be in St Andrews during first semester. I believe I speak for many students when I say: Principal Mapstone, this was not our choice. Many of us would have stayed at home, saving a particularly vulnerable, elderly town from a possible COVID-19 outbreak, had we been given the option. Accommodation in St Andrews is extortionately expensive, all society events are online, and we are now all away from the comfort of our homes and families with only minimal in-person support from our friends due to physical distancing guidelines. If the University had freely allowed its students to study online, those who consciously decided to return could have benefitted from in-person teaching, study spaces, and other amenities that the town offers, while students who would have decided to remain online could have done so from the comfort of their own homes, with the support of their family and free from anxiety of supporting themselves during a global pandemic.
Principal Mapstone suggests that the main advantage of students being in St Andrews now is that they can be present for when in-person teaching begins and have access to libraries and wifi, but these advantages do not justify being present in St Andrews, particularly in the first seven weeks when there is no guarantee of in-person teaching or events. Likewise, the Principal’s suggestion that that students are in “ideal conditions” for the university experience by being in St Andrews dismisses the current Scottish guidelines, mental health concerns, and the essential closure of an in-person Students’ Association. As an example, let’s consider the current situation for first-years. Many freshers have travelled hundreds to thousands of miles away from home just to be present in St Andrews. For many, their experience has begun with an isolating two-week quarantine in halls, and for those students accepted conditionally, over a hundred were left without accommodation, forced to commute from Dundee. Then, once they find accommodation and are out of quarantine, they are still lacking the opportunity to benefit fully from societies and opportunities to meet friends, as all Students’ Association events are online for the foreseeable future, including outdoor and socially distanced ones.
This means that the University has taken first-years away from the support networks of their friends and families to what is colloquially described as a Bubble and without any in-person opportunities, essentially a confinement to Microsoft Teams and their small hall-of-residence bedroom. It’s a recipe for disaster, particularly for student mental health. As a student, I am quite frankly fed up with the University’s handling of our education and university experience throughout the pandemic, which has most recently cost its students thousands of pounds in accommodation, flights, and preparations for in-person study. If the University is unable to host in-person teaching throughout the semester or year due to government guidelines, rest assured I will be grateful that students and faculty are not being put in unsafe conditions just to study in-person and will find relief that we can continue to study online. However, by delaying this announcement until the day of halls of residence move-in, and one week before the first week begins, the University has failed its students, and the administration should take responsibility.