Student fury as universities plan to continue online teaching into 2022

5 July 2021, 14:15 | Updated: 5 July 2021, 15:30

Students protested against blended learning earlier in the year after much of the promised in-person teaching moved online.
Students protested against blended learning earlier in the year after much of the promised in-person teaching moved online. Picture: Getty

By Joe Cook

Students have told LBC they are "infuriated" at plans from some universities to continue teaching parts of their course online, even as Boris Johnson is set to announce plans for all social distancing rules to be removed.

Multiple universities including Kent, Sheffield and University College London have already made public that students should expect "blended learning" - with some lectures given online.

Hundreds of students have signed a petition at Kent University after they said group lectures would continue online next year with the aim of reverting to in-person "in early 2022".

Manchester University has gone further, announcing a permanent move to including online teaching in their courses, including for "explanatory material" that would previously have been given in lecture theatres.

But despite promises of more in-person teaching, after over a year of watching lectures from their bedrooms students have told LBC they are thoroughly opposed to the plans and have little trust in university management.

'Labs have been taught by YouTube tutorials'

Biochemistry first-year student Caitlin Wright told LBC she has only had four hours of in-person teaching in her first year at Manchester University.

"Labs have been taught by YouTube tutorials and when people went in to do one they had no idea what to do and how to use the equipment," she recounted.

Caitlin Wright told LBC she has only had four hours of in-person teaching for her biochemistry degree this year.
Caitlin Wright told LBC she has only had four hours of in-person teaching for her biochemistry degree this year. Picture: Caitlin Wright

Caitlin described the decision by Manchester to move to permanently include online teaching as part of the courses as "absolutely shocking and not in the best interests of students".

"I understand why it was necessary for this year but past the pandemic I am not sure why it is necessary.

"Everyone learns so much better in person, where they can bounce ideas off each other and put their hands up to ask questions. Online it takes three to five business days to get an answer to your question."

Read more: Manchester students claim police are carrying out 'random' Covid-19 checks in halls

Similarly, first-year Politics student Chris Adair told LBC he is worried the "quality of teaching will be severely affected if the university use the pandemic as an excuse to move to online teaching".

While the university says using a hybrid approach will allow students more flexibility, Chris told LBC he did not understand this as "many lectures were already recorded" pre-pandemic.

Chris said he and other students are "very, very worried" that the university could again move back to fully-online teaching.

"Last year they promised there would be blended learning and they reneged on that in the fist few weeks. There is uncertainty and real distrust between students and management."

Read more: Manchester Uni students pull down lockdown fencing put up around halls

Students launched mass protests at Manchester in November after university management put fencing around their halls.
Students launched mass protests at Manchester in November after university management put fencing around their halls. Picture: Ben McGowan

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told LBC universities have been scarred by the chaos of last autumn and are adapting their plans accordingly.

"Students regard learning as a social endeavour and see part of the university experience as spending time in the presence of people from other countries, other parts of the UK and other backgrounds," he explained.

"But universities got it wrong last year, when they promised face-to-face learning would come back earlier than it was allowed to for most students, and they are desperate not to overpromise this year."

'I've had 45 minutes of actually being at university'

Unlike Manchester, the University of Sheffield have not said they will be moving to blended learning permanently, but will adapt their learning to include online teaching "should this be necessary".

Sheffield say their "expectation and current plan is to deliver as much face-to-face teaching as possible in 2021-22", but students are concerned that they have heard nothing concrete from the university so far.

"I have only had 45 minutes of actually being at university, one in-person seminar the entire year," Politics student Dan Walsh told LBC.

"I would be hoping for an approach that is blended but also returns teaching to what it is meant to be," they continued.

"My course is meant to have 10 weeks of teaching but the university is saying because it is online only five weeks is needed.

"We're getting half the teaching for £9,000. That's not fair, that's not just."

Ahead of Boris Johnson's announcement that all sectors of the economy will now be able to open up, Dan added: "What difference is it going to make if we don't have in-person teaching if everyone is going to the pubs and clubs. It's pretty futile."

Explained: What time is Boris Johnson's announcement and what will he say?

'This is not online teaching'

Responding to the student's concerns, a University of Manchester spokesperson told LBC: “This is not online teaching, but about augmenting in-person lectures, seminars, labs, Q&As and discussions, and workshops with high quality online materials for self-study.

"We have been speaking to students for some time about ways to increase flexibility and choice and we will continue to do so to help shape this activity to their needs and the needs of each discipline.

"Our commitment to blended and flexible learning is part of the university strategy.”

A University of Sheffield spokesperson said they "are working hard to provide the best on-campus experience in a Covid-secure way, in line with government guidelines.

“Our top priority is always the wellbeing of our university community. Our expectation and current plan is to deliver the great majority of teaching face-to-face in September, with some larger lectures being delivered online.

"However, we have proven expertise in providing blended learning over the past year and will be able to adapt our learning and teaching delivery in response to new Covid-19 safety measures should this be needed.

"Digital delivery has opened up many possibilities for enhanced innovative learning and virtual social activities over the past year.”