After a Covid-ravaged year in which undergraduates had to make do with a “YouTube university experience”, the hope as campuses reopen this week is that this academic year things will all be different.
And yet, as students returned to their digs, it was clear that campus life is still some way away from returning to those the free-and-easy pre-Covid days. Many lectures are still being delivered online, with vice-chancellors saying that the shift will become permanent.
Meanwhile, coronavirus concerns are hindering students’ ability to socialise. Some campuses have seen record numbers of new students because of grade inflation and, to top it all, teachers are threatening to strike this autumn.
Halimah Begum, a second-year law student at Aston university, Birmingham, who spent her first year doing Zoom classes, is among those hoping that after last year’s “knock-off” university experience, 2021 will prove to be the real thing.
“I do hope that things will be very different this year, but I’m really nervous . . . I don’t want to be in the situation where we’re just a bit abandoned.”
At the top of the list of students’ concerns is how they will return to in-person tuition which they have sorely missed over the long months of the pandemic.
Most universities have shifted to a “blended” timetable this year with small classes and seminars held in person and lectures online. University leaders said this temporary hybrid system could become the norm as institutions seek to shift to more flexible, and they say improved, ways of delivering learning.
But many students are pushing back against reductions in face-to-face teaching, arguing that online classes are a poor substitution and a cost-cutting exercise.
The Russell Group, comprising the top 24 UK universities, said the shift to digital learning had long roots and that the pandemic had improved “understanding” of how technology can be used “to enhance the teaching experience”.
While “most seminars, small group classes and lab work” would be taught in person, traditional lectures “are likely to feature much less in the future”, it said.
At Warwick university, more than 1,800 undergraduates have signed a petition against online classes, citing a “detrimental impact on the quality of teaching and our mental health” for the sake of “higher profits”.
The university said it was moving all lectures with 50 or more people online, to “limit the risk of the spread of Covid-19”.
But student David Bush said his peers were being forced to have a “YouTube experience” and argued that they should have a choice between attending lectures or watching them from home.
The tension is reflected by the National Union of Students, which recognised that online lectures had improved accessibility for many students while making learning more difficult for others.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president, urged institutions to put students “front and centre of decision-making”.
At Bath university, south-west England, one student union officer said satisfying all parties was impossible: “It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the three bears — for some it’s too much, for some it’s not enough, and for others it’s just the right amount.”
A cloud of uncertainty also hangs over this year’s social events, usually a highlight of freshers week. Last year, many activities were cancelled, while those that went ahead, along with and informal mixing in halls, were blamed for a rise in Covid cases ahead of the winter lockdown.
About 70 per cent of universities said they were not planning to use vaccine passports for entry to activities or lessons this term, at a recent meeting of education leaders.
But student unions have staged a comeback with the usual fanfare of club nights and pub crawls. At some campuses, including Bath, vaccinated and unvaccinated arrivals will be given different coloured wrist bands with the latter asked to show proof of a negative Covid test before entering events.
A year that marked a record in attainment for A-level students across the UK as schools and colleges switched a teacher-led assessment system for a second year, pushed enrolment among 18-years-olds up 7 per cent this September to their highest ever levels
At Manchester university, physics lecturer Philippa Browning said admissions for some courses were up by as much as 30 per cent from last year, a cause of concern for teachers worried about the Covid risks from accommodating so many students.
“Things are basically going back to normal,” said Browning, who has been handling the health and safety concerns of staff. “Things have been changing so fast the staff are a bit bewildered.”
And after more than a year of uncertainty, last-minute preparations and heavy workloads, unrest is brewing among academic staff.
The UCU will next month ballot its members on whether to take strike action over pensions, making it likely that the majority of universities will be hit by walkouts before Christmas.
In Bath, there is a sense of solidarity between teachers and undergraduates over their shared struggles. The union supports the strikes but acknowledges that getting all students on board may require work.
“They’ve missed out on a lot of in person time already,” said one student union officer.