Students ‘searching in the dark’ for clarity on university reopening

Financial uncertainty as a result of unemployment crisis caused by Covid-19 impacts

Most third-level institutions have said they will offer a blended approach to course delivery in the autumn. Photograph: Getty

Most third-level institutions have said they will offer a blended approach to course delivery in the autumn. Photograph: Getty

 

Third-level students need clarity by the end of June on what to expect when colleges reopen in the autumn in order to make informed decisions about their next steps, the president of the Union of Students in Ireland has said.

The impact on public health caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to universities and colleges having to address how they can continue teaching while keeping their staff and students safe in a post-pandemic environment.

Most third-level institutions have said they will offer a blended approach to course delivery but, according to USI president Lorna Fitzpatrick, the detail required by students to make an informed decision on whether to accept or refuse a college offer is lacking.

“They won’t need to know the individual detail of dates of assessments and so on but what they will need to know is if they are expected to be on campus two or three days a week, or two or three days a month, and how long that is planned for,” she said.

“People are searching in the dark and are trying to find answers. The answers aren’t there for them just yet which is leaving people in a panic and with a fear of the unknown. We are only a few short weeks out from September and it will go in the blink of an eye.”

Students who would have worked over the summer are facing financial uncertainty as a result of the unemployment crisis caused by the pandemic and will have concerns surrounding the accommodation and technical costs associated with blended learning arrangements, she said.

“Students who would have earned €2,000 over the summer months on a monthly basis who are now going to be in receipt of a reduced pandemic payment of €203 a week which will bring them down from €2,000 to €800 or so which has a massive impact on their ability to return to learning for the new academic year,” Ms Fitzpatrick.

“Accessible and affordable” flexible accommodation arrengements are going to be essential for the new academic year, she noted. “There’s no point in having all of these wonderful options if people can’t benefit from them.”

Survey

Concerns about the impact the changed learning environment is likely to have were also highlighted in the results of a new survey published by DCU.

The survey of almost 1,500 prospective students identified worries about how they will make new friends, how they will adapt to the blended model of teaching and issues relating to student accommodation as key concerns.

Responding to the survey results, Dr Claire Bohan director of student support and development at DCU, said she expected the changed learning environment would result in a more personalised experience for students.

She said that “mass activities” such as large lectures and classes are being moved online which will allow for an increased focus to be placed on the personal and individual activities on campus.

“For me, that is what it should be about. Suddenly, we are going to have to take on more staff and break the large group of students into smaller groups of students,” said Dr Bohan.

Efforts are also being made to make sure college accommodation fits the blended learning model. It is hoped that students who are required to attend sessions on campus will have those days grouped together to minimise the disruption and costs associated with student accommodation.

“If a student will be on campus two days a week, it will be a Monday and Tuesday or a Wednesday and Thursday - and not Monday and Friday. We are being very practical about it. We know there are students coming from Donegal who can’t be expected to hop on a bus both ways twice a week,” said Dr Bohan.

Students will also participate in an orientation transition programme which will take place in the virtual learning environment (VLE).

“As we talk to them about university life, social life, clubs and societies and academic structures they will be learning how to use the VLE before they have to start interacting with the academic area.”

Asked whether students would be better off deferring their course for a year, Dr Bohan said: “If you are ever going to have an experience where the focus is really clearly on the students and really clearly on the experience, that is going to be an aboslute priority this September so I would say no, don’t defer.”