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The Student investigates: in-person teaching

As University of Edinburgh students return to campus, an investigation by The Student finds that The University of Edinburgh is enforcing Covid restrictions beyond those required by the Scottish government, leaving many students with minimal face-to-face contact with academic staff each week. 

Prior to the start of the 2021/22 academic year, the university pledged to deliver a “mix of digital and in-person teaching”, however, many students have expressed frustration about the inconsistency of university covid regulations versus those in Edinburgh more widely. 

Whilst many seminars and tutorial sessions will be held on campus, a large proportion of lectures remain online, whether as pre-recorded clips or live sessions. This is due (according to the university) to a need to maintain physical distancing in classroom settings, with senior management having placed a limit of 50 people on in-person classes.

Many of the covid regulations in place at the university are mandated in law, including the wearing of face coverings inside and additional hygiene measures such as access to hand sanitiser and disinfectant. 

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Physical distancing limit

However, The Student has found that The University of Edinburgh’s 50-person physical distancing limit is not being enforced because of government regulation but is an entirely independent policy. 

On the issue of physical distancing, the Scottish government insists that “the law [does] not mandate it”. 

Notably, The University of Edinburgh claimed in a statement at the start of the 2021/22 academic year that larger in-person classes were not able to take place because “these classes are most likely to be significantly affected by Covid-19 regulations”. 

No such regulations exist. 

When approached for comment on the policy – which is the driving force for continued online teaching for many students – a spokesman for The University of Edinburgh claimed that the motivation for the limit was “to minimise the chances of further covid outbreaks, which would again force closures”.

Whilst no law exists requiring physical distancing in education settings, local regulations do advise keeping a “reasonable distance” from others indoors.

The Scottish government responded to questions from The Student by asserting that “it is for institutions to determine the level of in-person teaching they offer for the year ahead”. 

They went on to reiterate the absence of any law requiring physical distancing, but that the above advice should be considered.

Drastically different levels of face-to-face contact time

The policy has meant students on different courses of study are being allocated drastically different levels of face-to-face contact time. Courses with a high volume of students have been forced to move most – and in many cases, all – lecture teaching online, as university timetables are unable to accommodate a large number of repeated small-capacity lectures. 

In contrast, students on the university’s smallest courses have comparatively benefited from the policy, being rewarded with more face-to-face teaching than others because lecture theatres can seat all students without the need for duplicate classes. 

For instance, students studying Politics or Economics – two of the most popular courses – are typically receiving between three and five hours of contact per week. 

Meanwhile, less popular subjects such as Ancient Greek and Latin are delivering the vast majority of classes in person, with some receiving up to 13 hours of face-to-face teaching per week.

Medicine students are also receiving a very large degree of their teaching in person, with many students expected on campus every day – one third year medical student described their timetable as “90% in person”. 

The spokesman for The University of Edinburgh commented on this, making clear that “these are spaces [laboratories and other specialist venues] where we are working hardest to maximise what we can do, over and above our basic planning assumptions”.

As such, the university has granted greatly varying degrees of face-to-face academic contact time on the basis of subject area. Medical students and other specialists are receiving considerably more hours than those on larger or less practical courses, with some social science students spending just 5 per cent (or two hours) of their working week in face-to-face teaching. 

This is despite a spokesman for The University of Edinburgh insisting that “a significant volume of teaching is [being] delivered in-person and on campus”.

It should be noted, however, that many schools are making additional efforts to increase pupil-staff contact, with interactive live sessions such as Q&As and specialist speaker events being offered online. 

Mixed student opinion

Some have welcomed continued online learning for multiple reasons, while others have expressed their considerable frustration with a perceived lack of clarity and explanation regarding decisions about teaching delivery. 

Georgia* – who is in the final year of her English Literature studies – told The Student that her timetable offers a different level of in-person study every two weeks for reasons unexplained: 

“In alternate weeks I only have two hours of in person class time. I don’t really understand why one seminar can be completely in person and the other can’t”.

Another student with the same number of face-to-face hours per week suggested the new timetable has made her feel she isn’t “actually going to university”.

The final year English Literature undergraduate went on: 

“I get the distinct feeling that the university isn’t being entirely honest with us about the reasons for not having totally in person teaching this year. I don’t think it’s entirely to do with the pandemic and perhaps more to do with bad planning and a lack of resources”. 

Speaking earlier this month, Colm Harmon – the Vice Principal Students at the university – claimed that planning for the new academic year was made difficult because “it was unclear exactly what restrictions would remain when university students return[ed]”.

Indeed, the Scottish government has changed its advice on both education provision and general social contact many times this year. 

Full ‘unlocking’ from most restrictions only occurred in Scotland in mid-August, just weeks before the start of semester one. 

However, some students aren’t convinced that this is a reason for online learning to persist. 

Josef*, a third year student at the university, told The Student

“I don’t buy the argument that timetables have to be done two months in advance. [The university] has a lot of money and resources, so they should do better and respond to the changing covid situation more flexibly.”

Disapproval of teaching decisions at the university is not universal, and some have reacted more positively to this year’s timetabling. 

Students studying Economics (among other degrees) have expressed relief at continued online learning because pre-recorded lectures that can be paused and rewound allow for notes to be taken at the pace of individuals.

Nonetheless, for those with a large amount of contact time reaction has been positive. 

Adam*, who studies in the classics department, says: 

“I absolutely love it. […] The commute to lecture theatres, seeing classmates and the lecturer in person is so much better than anything online in my opinion”. 

The non-academic front

On the non-academic front, a spokesman for The University of Edinburgh said it was “determined that things will be as ‘normal’ as possible, with sports, societies and other aspects of our university back up and running” – as has been the experience of many students so far this semester. 

However, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) have joined The University of Edinburgh in enforcing social distancing beyond that required by law. 

This has led to the cancelation of the much-loved Saturday night ‘Big Cheese’ event at Potterrow and forced several Welcome Week events online. 

This is yet again divergent from the wider Edinburgh community, as virtually all privately owned nightclubs have now reopened without covid restrictions. 

One student commented on this situation by telling The Student

“It’s ironic that I can go clubbing but not study with my uni in-person”, adding however that they “do understand why [the university] is being cautious.”

When approached, EUSA did not offer comment on the restrictions.

Despite EUSA’s agreement with the university for a need to be cautious, some covid policy divergence already exists. 

For instance, the scientific basis for allowing students to sit without masks and non-physically distanced in EUSA cafés after being forced to wear face coverings whilst seated in the Main Library, is unclear.  

Speaking to students, it is clear that low-level concern about covid outbreaks and an appreciation for efforts of caution by the university are commonplace in the student body. 

Nonetheless, palpable anger is detectable among many who feel they are being unnecessarily restricted in their face-to-face contact with university staff in a way that is neither required by law or commonplace throughout the UK. 

Without an effort to address concerns – such as through a statement of intent to review the semester 2 timetabling later in the year – it is likely that this frustrated tension among some of Edinburgh’s students will remain or even grow over the coming months.  

The University of Edinburgh responded to questions from The Student about the rationale behind timetabling decisions. In addition to the above quotes from the university spokesman, they asserted that: 

“The university is committed to offering students as much in-person, face-to-face teaching as we can safely deliver during the 2021/22 academic year”.

They contextualised the decision-making environment as thus: 

“We should remember that everything we do is taking place amid a global health challenge of unprecedented proportions and that personal responsibility will be key to minimising the spread of covid”.

*Some names have been changed

Image: Ollie Lewis