As students return to St Andrews for the beginning of second semester, the outlook remains slightly bleak for many. After being assured that the university would do everything they could to ensure in-person teaching across the board, the surge in Covid cases caused by the Omicron variant has forced certain classes to become online only. This is a blow for the many students in first and second year who have never experienced teaching that hasn’t taken place over Teams or Panopto, and who were hoping to finally engage with their subjects away from a screen. It is difficult not to feel hard done by, particularly with St Andrews’ size putting it in a better position than most larger institutions to push ahead with in-person teaching.
Having been one of the people lucky enough to experience pre-Covid teaching in my first year at St Andrews, online learning pales in comparison to what some students have dubbed ‘Zoom university’. Staring at a screen all day is always going to be less engaging than hearing a lecture delivered in person or having a lively, non-social distanced debate with your peers in a tutorial. Lecturers and tutors feel less approachable with the added obstacle of having to contact them online, or when they’re standing two metres away, masked and constantly having to ensure compliance with the Covid code. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard my tutors wistfully remember what teaching was like before the pandemic. Evidently, no matter how hard both staff and students might try to replicate the feel of pre-Covid teaching in a learning environment constrained by restrictions, it is just not possible.
In a frustrating turn of events, the library remained shut for the first week of teaching after its study space was closed in the middle of exam season last semester, just when students needed it most. This has raised the question of what students are actually paying for, especially when some are paying fees ranging from £9,250 to £25,100 a year. Comparing the expense of living and renting in St Andrews to the value of teaching and resources the university has provided makes it clear that the pandemic has increased financial pressure on students whilst detracting significantly from their student experience.
This has led to calls from university students across the UK that some sort of compensation is needed, especially when taking into account the debt most students emerge from university with. British students now graduate with an average debt of £45,000. With some graduates having never experienced a year of learning that has not been interrupted by Covid concerns, this seems to be both unfair and unsustainable. Solutions have been proposed – students from the London School of Economics have advocated for a tuition fee discount, which would be funded by graduates with the highest incomes paying more interest on their loans. However, the government is yet to take any definitive action on compensation for students.
There does some to be a light at the end of the tunnel. As more people become vaccinated and we begin to understand how the virus works, the student experience seems to be returning to something closer to normality (albeit slowly). More pressure is being put on universities to abandon blended learning: the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has recently spoken out against online learning, stating that there is now no excuse for universities not to offer in-person teaching.
Yet this does not erase the difficulties faced by students affected by the pandemic, who have lost crucial face-to-face teaching time, important development opportunities and chances to network. They have instead been faced with the anxieties, stress, and financial pressures of a university experience overshadowed by Covid-19. And for that, they deserve compensation.