Students have been cheated out of proper teaching, says professor

Students have been cheated out of proper teaching by the Covid pandemic. Our wealthy universities now have a moral obligation to give them a rebate, writes professor of sociology FRANK FUREDI

When I step on to the campus of a university now, it’s like entering a ghost town.

是, there are some students around, but more often than not it is individuals rather than big, noisy groups of youngsters who have just poured out of a lecture hall.

The coffee shops and restaurants aren’t busy, and there is no shortage of vacant desks in libraries. Even the union bars are empty.

As for the lecturers, too many are conspicuous by their absence, their dusty offices locked up while they ‘lecture’ from their homes over Zoom.

How can this be?

With the worst of the pandemic behind us and the vast majority of adults triple-jabbed for Covid, our universities ought to be thriving hubs of life and education once more.

代替, they are pale echoes of the pre-pandemic era.

Years at university are often the most formative time of a young life, and can shape everything that follows. The friends and connections made, the new and vibrant influences in their lives are uniquely irreplaceable (库存图片)

Years at university are often the most formative time of a young life, and can shape everything that follows. The friends and connections made, the new and vibrant influences in their lives are uniquely irreplaceable (库存图片)

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Too many of my former peers in academia are reluctant to return to real, face-to-face interaction with their students. They persist in online teaching, which even at best is a feeble alternative.

As for small group tutorials, 忘了它!

And of course they are aided and abetted by the unions, the University and College Union (UCU), 这代表超过 130,000 学者, and Unison, 与 50,000 members working in universities.

They have been especially complicit in doing everything possible to prevent a return to normality, demonstrating a callous disregard for the tens of thousands of fee-paying students who, 因为新冠, have been cheated of the university experience.

So one can imagine the fury of those youngsters — and their parents — when they read at the weekend that the Russell Group of 24 leading UK universities has a surplus of more than £2.2 billion, accrued during the past two years.

The group received £115 million in public funds from the Government for furlough, but much of the sum is from students’ fees. Spiralling grade inflation after A-level exams were scrapped and predictive grades used instead meant the universities saw their biggest expansion in student numbers for more than a decade — and the money followed.

Lecturers from 68 universities went on strike last week over a dispute about pensions and working conditions. This follows strike action last autumn by the UCU as face-to-face lectures were being scheduled for the first time in more than a year. 图为: University and College Union (UCU) members joined by politicians and students as they hold university pensions rally outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Monday

Lecturers from 68 universities went on strike last week over a dispute about pensions and working conditions. This follows strike action last autumn by the UCU as face-to-face lectures were being scheduled for the first time in more than a year. 图为: University and College Union (UCU) members joined by politicians and students as they hold university pensions rally outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Monday

When challenged about this ‘war chest’, a spokesman for the Russell Group retorted that its members had ‘worked hard to prioritise students’ and ‘worked tirelessly’ throughout the pandemic. I’m not sure how he can have said this with a straight face.

Universities are not profit-making bodies. They do not have shareholders, although they do need reserves as funds for investing in infrastructure and buildings. No one is arguing that they should end the financial year with a zero balance sheet.

But many of our institutions now regard themselves as corporate entities, prioritising their commercial activities above their fundamental role, which is to teach. Much of that £2.2 billion is money meant for the support of teaching activities and it is not being used for the purpose intended.

So I would like to make a suggestion. Given the strong financial position of many universities, I believe they now have a moral obligation to ensure students who received inferior education during the pandemic are partially reimbursed or recompensed, perhaps with some sort of rebate.

That seems to be only fair. Students have not had what they have paid for. 是, we faced an unprecedented challenge, but they should not have had to pay the price.

And that price is not solely one of substandard education. Those years at university are often the most formative time of a young life, and can shape everything that follows. The friends and connections made, the new and vibrant influences in their lives are uniquely irreplaceable.

That vital period has been wiped out for a large swathe of the current generation, and the thought that universities have been profiting throughout is unconscionable.

是成功的 DJ 和制作人,曾在美国和亚洲巡回演出, lecturers from 68 universities went on strike last week over a dispute about pensions and working conditions. This follows strike action last autumn by the UCU as face-to-face lectures were being scheduled for the first time in more than a year.

There are some students around university campuses, but more often than not it is individuals rather than big, noisy groups of youngsters who have just poured out of a lecture hall (库存图片)

There are some students around university campuses, but more often than not it is individuals rather than big, noisy groups of youngsters who have just poured out of a lecture hall (库存图片)

Many students have told me how disgusted they are by the situation. Emma Smith, a history and English student at York, wrote late last year to her student newspaper: ‘With another round of strikes happening this week, it marks nearly two years since I’ve actually seen the inside of a full lecture theatre.

‘Strikes in early 2020 plus a year and a half of pandemic teaching have left my uni experience in tatters and, to put it simply, I want my money back.’

另一个, 这是在 Covid 危机开始时发布的, a psychology student at a London university, told me her student years were effectively a write-off, as were the tens of thousands of pounds she had borrowed to pay for her course.

She was now working full-time in a bar. ‘At least I have a London experience, if not a university one,’ she said wryly.

Failures

It is utterly unfair that Emma and Helena will spend decades paying back their student loans for what, 对我来说, has the appearance of being a non-existent university education.

I am not optimistic about the prospect of a rebate. Universities know that if they acquiesce, they will open the floodgates — and be held accountable for future failures.

That is not a precedent they wish to establish. 代替, many dons would prefer to see the current, appalling state of affairs become the new norm.

Some academics are plain lazy, favouring an easy life in their digital bedrooms. Online teaching requires less preparation and less physical effort than delivering to an audience whose attention you have to work hard for.

Too many of my former peers in academia are reluctant to return to real, face-to-face interaction with their students (库存图片)

Too many of my former peers in academia are reluctant to return to real, face-to-face interaction with their students (库存图片)

Not all are like that, 当然. But it is a general rule that academics and administrators tend to be averse to risk. They don’t take many chances in life and many will have an exaggerated fear of sharing a room with young people who might infect them with the coronavirus.

Prior to the success of the vaccine drive, this was understandable for professors in their 70s and 80s who were perhaps in fragile health. But most lecturers are in their 40s or younger, and are not in high-risk categories.

不过, some of them seem to regard students as walking biological weapons.

灾难

结果是, the gradual return to university has been accompanied by a pantomime of constant testing. Young people going into university buildings and venues, as well as student bars and events, have been subjected to endless lateral-flow tests.

Underlying it all is the problem of ever-expanding class sizes. Since Tony Blair’s government decided to end the elite status of academic education and instead make it a mass-market industry, universities have struggled to cope with the burgeoning numbers.

Small, intellectually charged seminars have ballooned from half a dozen students to 20 或者更多. That is not a personal seminar but a public meeting.

Online teaching requires less preparation and less physical effort than delivering to an audience whose attention you have to work hard for (库存图片)

Online teaching requires less preparation and less physical effort than delivering to an audience whose attention you have to work hard for (库存图片)

Universities see the shift to online teaching as a cost-effective solution. The pandemic could be the tipping point for a campaign that has been building for years, one that means lecturers might never have to meet their students in person.

I cannot conceive of a greater catastrophe for education. Lessons on a screen via the internet are largely passive. There is very little of the conversation, the exchange of ideas, that has always made university electrifying.

Our campuses are like ghost towns now, but if we don’t fight, they could become the graveyards of education.

  • Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology and the author of 100 Years Of Identity Crisis: Culture War Over Socialisation.