Students are the forgotten victims of lockdown. Having worked hard to achieve their grades, undergraduates have been consigned to their bedrooms to learn online. There's been no socialising, freshers fun or the chance to make new friends. The only thing that has been the same for the Covid class of 2021 are sky high fees.
Finally, the government has announced that all university students will be able to return from the 17 May. While some undergraduates may be relieved to get some much-needed clarity, most will be deeply, deeply frustrated.
Many students are asking why universities did not open again when schools did. They are also wondering why they can currently go shopping, get a tattoo, take a day trip to Alton Towers or have a massage, but they cannot sit in a well-ventilated, socially-distanced seminar room wearing masks. They are raising serious questions about what this means for tuition fees and rent.
According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, only about a fifth of undergraduates have received reimbursement from their university or accommodation provider since the start of the pandemic. This new guidance from the government may make it even harder for students to be compensated, because they can technically go back for part of the summer term.
However, the date chosen by the government is particularly infuriating because the summer term is effectively over by mid-May. The vast majority of universities will have finished their teaching by then, and most students will be sitting exams. If these assessments are online, there is virtually no point in students returning to campus at all.
The effect of all this disruption on university students is staggering. According to a new survey, around 40 per cent of students have seriously considered dropping out of university. There has been a huge rise in students asking to repeat the year – up to five times as high at some universities – and two-thirds of students say their mental health is worse due to the pandemic.
The pandemic has been particularly hard on first years, who have had to endure A-levels being cancelled, the sham of A-level results and then having one of the most formative years of their life spent socially isolated and staring at a screen, all while stuck at home.
The social and psychological impact of this is obvious, but we must not underestimate the academic toll either: we risk a serious ‘brain drain’ because students are not learning all the fundamental study skills they need to succeed as an undergraduate but also in an increasingly competitive global job market.
As a private tutor, I have been struck by the huge increase in undergraduates looking for extra tutoring over the past year. Many are in their first year, and with little support from university tutors and no fellow students to draw upon, they are floundering. One student I tutored had, rather ironically, never met any of his personal tutors in person, and had no idea how to structure a university essay. After he submitted the assignment, I asked him what feedback he had been given. He was given a grade, but not a single comment. How is he possibly going to know how to improve?
His story is not unique. Nathaniel McCullagh, managing director of Simply Learning Tuition, says that between January and April 2021 there has been an 100 per cent increase in the number of undergraduates looking for tutoring and mentoring compared to the same time last year. He isn't surprised by this hike in demand:
'Students are struggling because all of the usual support networks are hidden behind a wall of IT. There is no basic academic support to answer questions. Lectures are often pre-recorded, and it can take more than four or five days to get an email response from a lecturer. A lot of the resources you need as an undergraduate are only available in a library. As many students are stuck at home and overseas, they not only have no access to pastoral care, but are also missing out on developing the basic building blocks of learning.'
Many assumed the pandemic might make students re-evaluate going to university, but this isn’t the case, and the number of applicants during lockdown was actually higher than ever. As there is so much demand, universities don’t need to worry about the quality of their supply, because there are always more students willing to fill up the places. Their online provision may be poor, but there is no one to hold them accountable.
While there are various initiatives and charities to help school students catch up, such as Tutor The Nation and the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, there doesn’t seem to be anything similar targeted towards university students. Instead, students are having to pay out of their own pockets to get the support they need (despite the fact that they are already paying £9,000 in tuition fees). The reality is that when they do return to face-to-face teaching, they are in all likelihood going to struggle with the academic challenge.
It’s easy to assume university students will simply ‘bounce back’ with the return to normality, but the damage may already be done. The longer the government delays students returning, the harder it will be for students to catch up, and they will be paying the price – literally and metaphorically – for years to come.