Universities have let their students down | Letters

Current difficulties were predictable and avoidable, writes one academic, while Maria Gajewska wonders when a fee refund might be due. Meanwhile, William Proctor believes it is the government, not institutions, that bears responsibility for the crisis

What a mess (UK universities ‘bullying’ junior staff into face-to-face teaching, 25 September). Academics have raised safety issues for months. The debacle was predictable and avoidable. While the NHS prepared for increased hospitalisations in October, universities aggressively competed for “customers”. If only we had learned from the mistakes of the American universities, which opened buildings in August but soon closed them because of the problems that we now see here.

Vice-chancellors, and the boards to whom they are accountable, made commitments they couldn’t honour. Most promised students a campus experience with buildings open and face-to-face teaching, lest their institution became unsustainable. They signed contracts with accommodation providers that may render them liable if places aren’t filled.

The whole country is let down by the lack of capacity in our test-and-trace system. Fuelled by hope rather than facts, vice-chancellors fostered communications designed to persuade students and staff that all would be OK. “Covid-secure buildings” became the name of the game. Reasonable-sounding policies were developed and air conditioning systems reviewed. Marketing departments went into overdrive. Sadly, in many cases safety measures have not been effectively implemented and monitored.

Universities have important roles in dealing with the economic fallout by informing, educating, training and retraining us all. Yet, instead of rational, evidence-based decision-making, some universities have chosen spin to attract customers with scant regard for student and staff wellbeing. The pandemic is exposing fault lines in our market model of education. The government and our vice-chancellors have let universities down.
Name and address supplied

• Your article (Covid-19: what are UK students’ rights over accommodation and courses?, 28 September) quotes the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education saying that “if your provider has offered you different but broadly equivalent teaching and assessment opportunities in a way that you could access, it is not likely that you will get a fee refund for that”, implying that students pay for “teaching and assessment”.

I was a student at University College London in 2018, when many of us lost the better part of a term due to strikes. Some demanded fee refunds as our teaching was severely compromised (especially for those on one-year degrees, like most MA and MSc courses). We were told this was not possible as we were paying for the “university experience”, not the tuition itself. Surely that experience is now hardly broadly equivalent, which makes a call for fee reductions perfectly justified? Unless it is the tuition we are paying for after all.
Maria Gajewska

• Re Suzanne Moore’s article (British students are learning one lesson this term: trust no one, 28 September), students at Bournemouth University are receiving more teaching during the pandemic rather than less. Academic staff have seen their workloads increase exponentially, as we have striven to provide not only online lectures, seminars and workshops, but also additional sessions to help students with exams and assessments, as well as offer extensive pastoral care sessions.

I suggest Moore speaks to academics at the coalface of universities, where we are struggling to cope with excessive workloads. Of course, we would rather be on campus as well, but there is an armada of research regarding online teaching that we are all drawing on to offer the best education possible during a pandemic. Perhaps the target should be the government, which has hitherto refused to provide economic support to protect universities from collapse.
Dr William Proctor
Bournemouth University


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