I’m tired of hearing that universities are closed – it simply isn’t true

Lecturers are doing all they can during the pandemic to support the myriad different ways in which students learn

Alexis Paton
Wednesday 03 March 2021 16:00 GMT
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On 8 March, universities will take the first steps towards returning to physical campuses. Plenty of people have had something to say about the experiences of the Covid university intake. And we should be listening to students about these experiences, especially those on practice-based courses.

But students are not the only people caught up in the changes to academic life. Staff have weathered the storm, too, largely ignored and forgotten. Their experiences have been given the cold shoulder in favour of attention-grabbing headlines about the value of online degrees.

I hit out on Twitter recently at the portrayal of closed universities offering students nothing for their money. Almost half a million views later, it is safe to say it struck both a chord and a nerve. Academic staff said they felt heard for the first time. The reaction from students and parents was admittedly mixed. What was clear is that there is a lot of frustration, anger and confusion about what is actually happening at universities right now.

Contrary to many accounts in the media, though, there is something happening on campuses across the country. A lot of something. Because for many degrees, the only thing to really change is the venue.

Yes, there are practical degrees where students are missing out on hands-on learning, which cannot be replicated online. This is a problem the government must find a solution to, offering financial support for students and staff to make up that lost time. I won’t argue with that point. But many degrees are not “hands-on” in this way, and reports that universities are closed and offering nothing to their students are misleading.

My plea is that you listen to the experiences of staff, so that you can understand two important things about the university experience during Covid.

First, understand what is normally provided at universities in non-Covid times. Take contact hours in a module, for example. A pretty typical university module involves one lecture and one lab/small group session per week. There is no hard and fast rule, but the “lecture hour”, much like the “therapeutic hour”, only clocks in at 50 minutes. This is to allow time for students and staff to use the facilities and move to other classrooms if they have back-to-back sessions.

I teach both sociology students and medical students. The maximum amount of lecturing they get from me in a week is two one-hour sessions and one seminar session. That’s it. This is very normal, Covid-19 or not. A first-year sociology student, for example, will likely do about four modules a semester, amounting in total to only four one-hour lectures and four to eight seminars in a week during that semester.

In fact, most modules on most degrees are largely made up of self-study hours – hours that the student spends reading, preparing for the lecture, doing assignments and studying. These can add up to more than 100 hours for a single module.

While the lectures and seminars are now online, the provision is the same each week. That only the venue has changed for so many degrees seems to be an important bit of context missing from how university education provision has been portrayed – context that is crucial in allowing the public to make an informed comparison between Covid vs non-Covid teaching.

Second, while much has gone virtual, the campuses themselves remain open. Degrees like medicine and nursing have continued on campus, blending a virtual and physical approach to learning. And important and vital services like libraries have remained open. For example, at Aston, our library is open 9am to midnight, six days a week, and 11-5 on a Sunday. Students can collect books and use independent study spaces.

Our postgrad and undergrad students doing lab research are allowed on campus, as are all the exempt studies that the government has listed. Students without appropriate study space at home can come to campus to access study space and materials, as can students with learning and mental wellbeing needs. A quick check with colleagues from other institutions confirms that many other universities are doing the same.

I could go on. About how most academic staff are only contracted to teach about half their hours a week; the rest they are expected to spend on research and admin. About how many are working seven-day weeks, trying to get through the sheer volume of online material needed to support all the different ways in which students learn. About how the summer months are concentrated research time, not time off.

But for now, I’ll focus on my original plea to consider the story of university staff, too.

Throughout the pandemic, universities have never been closed. Staff have worked tirelessly, well above their contracted hours, to provide online equivalents to on-campus teaching that meet the learning needs of those doing the degree. Staff and students are a package deal. It is misleading to imply that they are somehow set against each other, or that universities are taking students’ money and simply sitting back, watching the pound signs rack up. It devalues the work of the staff to support students, and it devalues the degrees students are working so hard to achieve. Enough.

Perhaps it is time to focus instead on the government departments that have abandoned the students, left universities out of discussions about lockdowns and “reopenings”, and ignored the pleas from staff and students that academics also need support as we weather the pandemic.

As for us university staff? 8 March will just be another long day at the office.

Dr Alexis Paton is a lecturer in social epidemiology and the sociology of health at Aston University, chair of the Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians, and a trustee of the Institute of Medical Ethics

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