When 17-year-old Harvey Stiles heard that Exeter university had moved lectures online, he changed his plans. He will now defer his offer of a place, in the hope that next year his aspirations to play university football and embrace the freshers’ social calendar might be realised.
“My plans have been turned upside down very quickly,” he laments. His gap year travel had already been scuppered by coronavirus. “I thought I’d go straight to uni. Now it looks like so many aspects of my sports science course won’t be possible virtually and with social distancing.”
Mr Stiles isn’t alone in grappling with these decisions. One in five prospective UK students says they plan to defer their degree if universities are not operating as normal when the academic year begins, after the Office for Students, the UK regulator, demanded that institutions provide “absolute clarity” on what students will receive. Most have spent their last couple of months of secondary school with learning transferred online. For Mr Stiles, this didn’t live up to face-to-face teaching, and he certainly wouldn’t want to part with the full £9,250 annual tuition fee for similar provision for undergraduates.
One parent of a student at George Washington University (where tuition fees are more than $25,000 a semester) felt his daughter was so short-changed by the online teaching during lockdown that he has filed a federal class-action lawsuit, seeking reimbursement.
Institutions are at pains to prove that their degree courses won’t be compromised. When Cambridge announced this week that all next year’s lectures will move online, the university stressed that smaller group teaching will continue in-person, if feasible. “We’re working on the basis that we’ll get as many students on campus as possible, health requirements permitting,” says Roger Mosey, master of Selwyn College. Mr Mosey’s college is planning for small tutorials in freed-up, spacious lecture theatres; students will be grouped into “households” that adhere to social distancing guidelines.
But putting gaps of two metres between students makes bars and varsity sports inconceivable luxuries. What of the jam-packed freshers’ week schedule of consecutive nights spent stomping on sticky nightclub dance floors? No more froth cascading from the ceiling of the “foam party” on to you and your potential life-long friends.
For finalists such as Esme, a fourth-year chemistry student at Oxford, it is a wrench. When she realised that her family’s rapid stripping of her college room in March was the last she would see of university, she spent 10 minutes crying in the shower, grieving. “I felt the final exam-free summer term I’d been working towards all this time was robbed from me.”
“These are very critical and formative years, and you just don’t get that time again in your career,” says Ros McMullen, a recently retired executive principal of secondary schools and parent of “quaranteens”. “The prospect of a generation finishing university like this is a devastating loss — we must mark achievements.”
Studying for my final examinations four years ago, I’m not sure I would have felt there was an achievement to mark if it had not been for the late nights revising for my language degree with my best friends in the 24-hour library. Our sense of solidarity — equally stuck on a verb conjugation and equally sleep-deprived at 4am, our communal desk littered with coffee cups — may never be replicated. Memories of these nights return to help me now when I’m faced with a deadline: if we could do it then, I can certainly do it now.
Universities are moving fast to adapt to the challenges of coronavirus; it is costing them millions. But the education they provide in normal times is much more than the watered-down experience new students face. The gulf between the idea of student life and the reality for this year’s prospective new intake — yet more solitary study — may be too wide to justify emerging with so much debt.
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