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Academic Year 2021/2022: What Can We Expect from Post-COVID Education?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

Online learning is a bit like marmite: you either love it or hate it. Recently, the announcement from several universities that lectures will remain online for the Autumn term was met with backlash from dissatisfied students demanding more for their money. On the other hand, others welcomed the decision for the convenience it offers. But it begs the question, what other features of this digital COVID world can we expect to survive within our university climate? Has the face of the university experience changed for good? 

Earlier this month, several large universities across the UK, including Manchester and Liverpool, announced that lectures would continue online in the Autumn term. Many universities plan to deliver a ‘blended learning’ approach, with small classes such as seminars going ahead in-person while large scale lecture halls remain empty for another term. It’s expected that many other universities will follow suit despite hopes that restrictions will have eased and schools returning to full face-to-face teaching.

It’s a decision that has been met with contention. Countless students are understandably dissatisfied and despair at the thought of spending another term watching lectures from their bedroom. In general, arguments centre around the fact that online lectures impede the authentic university experience. In the past year, the pandemic has raised questions about the possibility of tuition fee rebates after an argument that universities aren’t delivering the experience they promised. University tuition fees, at over nine thousand a year (considerably more for international students), were overpriced, to begin with, let alone with the limited access to resources caused by the pandemic. Most would agree that online learning is not value for money. These factors even led students at the University of Leeds to start a petition demanding that the university reverse the plans for online lectures in September.   

Besides financial concerns, many students claim the lack of in-person teaching is taking its toll on their mental health too. The pandemic has been a lonely time for everyone across the board, but it’s been particularly isolating for students. First years have noted how difficult it has been to find coursemates and make friends without in-person teaching or social events. Students have commented on how this has led them to lose passion for a course they were excited to study. A first-year Law student at the University of Manchester reported to the BBC that studying from a screen, ‘kills your interest in a subject.’ Many agree that this year’s teaching model has been more akin to studying an Open University course which, notably, tend to cost less than half the price of a normal undergraduate degree.

Questions regarding health, both physical and mental, come into play too. Reports of eye strain have risen drastically increased this year and it’s thought that thousands across the country will have irreversible damage to their eyes as a result. Screen fatigue can also cause headaches and result in irritability, meaning students are actually finding it harder to sustain focus and productivity. There’s also a serious implication for students with ADHD / ADD who struggle to study for prolonged periods. Understandably, their daily struggles are exacerbated in the absence of structured timetables and personal engagement from tutors. 

On the other side of the coin, however, there are students who welcome the news of online lectures extending into the next academic year. For years, students with disabilities, caring responsibilities, and part-time jobs have encountered issues with the accessibility of in-person teaching. Because online lectures typically take the form of pre-recorded, asynchronous videos, students have the flexibility to structure their teaching around a time that suits them. This convenience also extends to students who struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Many who struggled with their mental health prior to the pandemic, particularly those with social anxiety, would avoid attending lectures in bustling, overwhelming lecture halls. For these people, COVID has opened opportunities they were typically excluded from. 

There are financial and environmental implications too, both for student and the institutions themselves. Students may be saving money on bus or train fairs, while the university is able to circumvent costs and save energy on heating large lecture halls. 

The bottom line is, online learning comes down to personal preference. But with many office-based companies, including accountancy firm KPMG and HSBC bank, adopting the new working-from-home model as the new standard, it seems safe to assume that we can expect the same initiatives to seep into the education sector.

It’s fair to say that educational reforms in response to digital technologies were set to make changes to the university landscape regardless. Just as COVID accelerated the death of the department store, the pandemic has simply aided the move towards more digital learning methods. But online learning is one thing, what about social pursuits? Many of us have adjusted to meetings and society socials taking place through a screen, but will this be set to continue next year too? In other walks of life, organisations are pledging to continue to offer online events in our post-COVID future. A report from ticketing platform, EventTribe, stated that businesses would be missing a ‘promising growth opportunity if they don’t start offering online events alongside in-person events’, suggesting that public demand for online opportunities is here to stay. 

So, with virtual experiences set to be the new future, it seems natural that events held by the University and Students’ Union will likewise offer a hybrid of online and in-person events. To satisfy both parties, the most reasonable decision would be to offer the best of both worlds to ensure everyone’s needs are met. However, financial implications will likely influence these decisions and the expense of a vast number of dissatisfied students. Only time will tell what post-COVID higher education has in store.

I'm Lilith, a final year English and Philosophy student at Nottingham. I'm an aspiring journalist interested in writing investigative features and opinion pieces, especially on the topic of mental health. I have an unhealthy obsession with house plants which I love to paint in my free time.