We are certainly living in strange, sci-fi times. And those strange, sci-fi times are not limited to Oxford, or even to the UK.
It therefore can’t be assumed that COVID-19 is something that the University of Oxford can have prepared for. The last pandemic that the university faced was the Black Death, only about a century after it was founded. It’s therefore no surprise that Asia was much more prepared than the rest of the world, and not just because that’s where COVID-19 originated. SARS was a lot more recent than the Black Death, after all. Not that that entirely justifies the UK or even the University of Oxford’s response, but it does put it into perspective. At least the university may have a plan for dealing with pandemics after this one is over, if only for it to be forgotten for another seven hundred years.
However, it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention by now that students are not exactly getting the services that they’re paying for. Not that that’s unique to Oxford. I can only speak for the UK, but it seems to be universal that students are no longer getting their money’s worth out of higher education. And, given that the University of Oxford charges higher tuition fees than most universities in the UK, that’s a big problem for those paying the fees.
Before COVID-19, students were already suffering through a healthy dose of disruption. This is the third academic year of the standoff between the UCU and universities across the UK, including Oxford, and it has brought with it what are now habitual strikes – which in itself should be enough to show that the standoff has been going on for too long. The amount of disruption that the strikes have caused for students for the last three years should by now be compensated.
The strikes themselves vary in how disruptive they are to particular courses by the particular teaching staff involved, so they range from being unnoticeable to having a serious effect on students’ education. When the strikes are happening, students tend to still at least have access to libraries. But this isn’t always the case. At the University of Liverpool in 2018 there were picket lines outside faculties, of course, but lecturers were also physically stopping students from entering the library to do the work that they had to do because they weren’t being lectured.
So, what additional disruption has COVID-19 caused for students? Well, Trinity Term is a write-off. The same can be said of the second semester of other universities. There will be remote teaching, but as of yet, there is no way of knowing what that will be like. Worse is probably the exams for taught students. In the last couple of weeks, consultations between the university and OUSU have concluded and the University of Oxford has announced its plan of action.
These plans are commendably ambitious, genuinely aiming to accommodate every possible eventuality that may arise and preference that students may have by providing three separate options: online, open-book exams this Trinity; graduation with Declared to Deserve Honours status (the one that is probably the least appealing, given that its validity is still being negotiated with employers); or deferring sitting written exams until Trinity 2021. None of the options are ideal, but there is something for everyone. As long as each student is supported in making the right decision for them, monumental a task as that will be.
However, there are still concerns. Questions about how these options will be implemented, about access to the resources necessary to complete open book exams, and about the lack of any exams for almost all students who are not leaving this year, have yet to be answered. The plans in place will certainly more than do the job during the pandemic and our inevitable prolonged quarantined status, but they do not make up for what taught students will have lost in resources, support, and in the experience of being at university. Taught students at least will undoubtedly not get their money’s worth this year.
And let’s not forget the research students, who are currently unable to access libraries, archives, or laboratories. With digital resources abounding, you might think that humanities students are better off than scientists at the moment, but you’d be wrong. Many rely on closed stack or archival material that is not accessible directly or even by the Bodleian’s Scan & Deliver service, because of staff shortages. The university is now consulting with faculties and OUSU about what support needs to be put in place for research students – but these decisions should be a priority alongside those students with exams.
While exams for taught students are a more imminent problem, the delay for research students, potentially until the end of exam season, means that they will have lost at least a month of their courses without any institutional-level plans being put in place – exemplifying how they so often come second to taught students and putting many in a difficult position. Those who are funded through Research Councils at least have a chance of financial support through the inevitable delay in finishing their degrees, but many do not have that level of security and are now trapped in a perpetual state of anxiety about how they will afford to finish what they have started. And, at the end of the consultations, no matter what measures are put in place to keep research courses running, the fact is that students are without many of the resources that they are paying an astronomical amount of money for.
Only three months into 2020, there has been so much disruption to studies that it is not justifiable for students to be charged full fees, even with all of the background support currently keeping the university open and all of the plans being put into place. While the university is making a huge and commendable effort, there needs to be a reflection in the reduction of services in the reduction of fees. Whether the best solution would be a straight-up refund or a reduction in fees for a future academic year for those who are enduring this one is up for debate. The British government is providing support to employees and businesses – even to the self-employed. It is about time that universities did the same for their students, if not as part of their duty of care, then as basic human decency.