It is often said during a crisis that we are all in the same boat; that if we pull together collectively, we can overcome anything that stands between us and dry land. This is obviously nonsense. The reality is that we are all in the same storm, but some of us are on yachts and others are in cramped lifeboats.
Indeed, the economic and public health devastation caused by COVID-19 is no different. During such a calamity, there are three groups of people: those who are practically unaffected; those who are disproportionately affected; and those in the middle who, due to their unique situation, receive little attention. Today, after 6 months of cancelled exams, primitive online learning, and no talk of compensatory debt write-off, we can say without a doubt that the student community has fallen into the latter column. Seeing how the Department for Education pulled a rabbit out of a hat to get school children back to some degree of normalcy, were we, university students, naive to have hoped for the same?
Ultimately, it is too early to tell what the effects of majority online learning will be on students. But, if the last 6 months are anything to go by, one thing is for sure: the near future is bleak. With hopes of the covid dust settling resting upon a vaccine that may never come, we can only pray that the detour that is the online learning regime doesn’t become a destination.
If things continue the way they are looking, however, we can expect the following: at Edinburgh (much like every other university across the UK), humanities students are looking at 100% of their degree being from a computer screen in their room while STEM students fear much of the same. Of course, the initial problems with all this are evident: students won’t develop a personal relationship with their teachers, and they won’t meet their like-minded ‘course buddies’, all of which will result in a reduction of intellectual immersion. Broadly speaking, students will be on their own. Whilst a laissez-faire approach may benefit some, this will have a severe impact on students who are new to university and not disciplined enough to make it without regular supervision.
It is this loss of discipline and organisation that poses the biggest threat, not just to students’ future, but to public health too. For instance, the pre-recorded lecture phenomenon is in fact, counterproductive. Students no longer have to wake up early, get dressed, have breakfast, and walk to university. As exams are cancelled for most first and second years, there is no pressure. One of the keys to being happy is having a routine, a timetable, as it gives us a sense of purpose. Get rid of this, and we will see an uptick in alcohol consumption, illegal nocturnal gatherings and an erosion of a body clock. One can only conclude that the mental health prospects of this don’t look bright, not to mention what this will mean for covid community transmission.
Across the world, universities have been one of the worst hit casualties in the battle against covid. The University of Edinburgh alone is expected to lose £150 million in revenue this year, largely due to a lack of international students. The reduction in the student university experience is therefore the result of a war on two fronts: the need to keep covid-19 under control and the necessity of recovering the lost revenue so as to minimise the economic legacy of the disease.
We cannot stand by and pray that a vaccine will come along and get us back to normal. It won’t. At least not for a long time. If covid is here to stay, we need to learn to live with it. As we’ve seen with the return of schools across the world, the pre-covid consensus is a utopia, but something resembling it is perfectly achievable. This is the compromise we need to strike and right now we are far from it.
Image: Scott Marsland via Wikimedia Commons