It's Freshers' Week at Trinity College Dublin and a cold wind rattles through the empty front square.
The only telltale sign a new academic year is underway is a lone student inspecting posters which dot the campus advertising the college’s 120 clubs and societies.
The pandemic has profoundly altered the college experience for students. This time last year, thousands of giddy students got their first taste of college life surrounded by noisy society stalls.
This year, most of their college life is being experienced through a laptop screen.
Public health restrictions mean that right across the third level sector the vast majority of lectures are online, with just tutorials and practicals taking place in-person in some colleges.
Club and society events are mostly virtual or are being held outdoors, subject to a maximum of 15 people. Signing up is a remote process which involves scanning QR codes on posters.
The numbers permitted on campus at any one time are a fraction of normal times. In this strange, subdued semester, many students keep a distance from each other, robbing campus life of many spontaneous connections that throw strangers together and lead to lifelong friendships.
However, Trinity College Dublin's provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast, is looking on the bright side. The university, he says, is proving resilient by keeping college life going, albeit in new ways.
Just the day before, he was giving a welcome talk online to hundreds of new students.
“When I looked at the freshers at our welcome event online, I saw that they’re still as fresh-faced as we were. They’re looking forward to their time here.
“They don’t know that last year this square was full of stalls. They’re happy to be here. And they’re appreciative of what we’re trying to do for them,” he says.
Trinity, like most other third level colleges, is offering limited in-person teaching in areas such as engineering, science, nursing and medicine, where practicals and laboratory work are crucial to the learning process.
Meeting their peer students is an important way to stay motivated and engaged. We need to think of all these things
Courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences, however, are online. The hope is that more in-person teaching can resume should public health restrictions ease.
“It’s important for students’ wellbeing to meet each other and their lecturers, in a physically distanced way,” says Prendergast. “That’s why calls to do everything online are too glib and easy a solution. We have to find the right way to deliver education that recognises the wellbeing of students and the importance of in-person activities.”
But there are worries about student engagement if there is not a return to meaningful in-person teaching. In normal times, about one in five students across the third level sector fail to complete their courses. Could these dropout rates climb even higher again?
“Students don’t drop out – usually, anyway – due to a lack of academic ability,” says Prendergast. “They drop out due to a lack of motivation or satisfaction with a course. That could end up happening to a greater extent if we don’t have more in-person events for students.
“Meeting their peer students is an important way to stay motivated and engaged. We need to think of all these things.”
For many students, however, there is frustration. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) says the sudden shift to online tuition has created problems and uncertainty for many. It says students should be offered refunds or contract releases without financial penalty should they wish to leave term-time accommodation.
Lorna Fitzpatrick, USI president, says campuses should remain open to students for vital services and needs such as libraries, health centres, food provision, essential in-person teaching, and study spaces required by students.
She says spaces must be designated on all campuses for students to access study and to join back-to-back lectures, while internet connectivity issues should be addressed through dedicated on-campus space or regional access points.
Prendergast, however, says he isn’t yet hearing demands for refunds or requests to leave accommodation.
“It hasn’t come up as an issue – and we believe it shouldn’t if we can maintain in-person teaching events.”
He says the college is doing its best to enhance the student experience by setting up large “breakout” spaces in marquees on the college lawns for work, study or dining. The library remains open, though with reduced capacity. Should current restrictions ease, Prendergast says most students can expect to be on campus for between two or three days.
But the threat of a Covid-19 outbreak on campus looms large, given the experience of UK colleges where hundreds of students are on lockdown.
The college’s on-campus accommodation is full, with 1,000 students living in halls at the city-centre campus, with hundreds more in student accommodation in Dartry.
Prendergast says the college has safeguards in place. Students are required to remain in dedicated bubbles or pods. As well as offering Covid testing on campus, the college offers weekly Covid screening services to staff and students. It’s all aimed at boosting confidence that the university is a safe environment.
I've nothing but admiration for this generation of freshers and what they've been through
“There have also been very few applications for deferrals this year. Our message is that you don’t succeed in life by skipping challenges; we all have to face into this challenge,” he says.
Students, in particular, have been criticised for breaching guidelines around socialising in recent weeks. However, Prendergast feels they have had a raw deal .
“I’ve nothing but admiration for this generation of freshers and what they’ve been through. They’re here now and want to make a go of it.
“I see some of the them being demonised . . . okay, there will be mistakes that young people will make when it comes to social events that they shouldn’t be having.
“But let’s trust them as best we can; let’s trust them to share the ambition of keeping universities open. They’ll have the benefit of in-person teaching; we’ll have the benefit of teaching them and seeing their success in their chosen subjects.”