University communications during COVID-19 – an Aspire member’s response to The Trials of the Class of COVID-19

An article by Lucy Fordyce

Anderson Anderson & Brown Consulting’s paper, The Trials of the Class of COVID-19, found that 62% of respondents asked for up-to-date information from universities regarding their response to COVID-19 and around 50% asked for ‘more information, more often.’ As an undergraduate student about to go into my third year in these uncertain times, I would certainly agree with these statistics. Offering clear, firm information to current and prospective students would demonstrate that institutions recognised the concerns of their students, starting a dialogue that would be incredibly beneficial to everyone starting a new term with a global pandemic hanging over their heads. Can we expect anyone to know exactly what the next few months will bring? Of course not, but having a “proper” conversation with students about our plans and concerns would go a long way towards making us part of the solution, not the problem.

I can’t help but feel that, so far, my own university’s response isn’t clear and firm enough to inspire any genuine confidence. A recent email said that we’ll start in September with a mix of online and socially-distanced teaching, that we’ll have safe conditions, and that Halls of Residence will be ‘open as normal.’ It all sounds good on paper but in the “real world,” the messed up, scary situation in which we’re all living, it’s unhelpfully murky and ultimately leaves students with more questions than answers. What about the extra-curricular facilities (sports, societies, the Union) that give students a necessary break from studying? What about the fact that Halls have shared kitchens with students who do different subjects so can’t feasibly form their own 8-person “bubble”? What about students with underlying health conditions? What about students who struggle with online learning for a variety of different reasons? What about international students, many of whom are stuck unwillingly in the UK due to lockdown or will feel compelled to get flights and then quarantine, regardless of their home country’s experiences of the pandemic? I could go on.

It’s understandable that universities are waiting on government updates with bated breath like the rest of us, yet the fact remains that they can’t be hesitant to take action. Better to over-plan than just assume everything is going to be okay, that students won’t be afraid, and that we’ll all just go along with whatever is emailed to us. After all, students are repeatedly taught to evaluate, discuss, and challenge information. We have an annoying talent for isolating facts, poking holes in arguments, and asking lots and lots of questions. There’s not much we hate more than the phrase “Too vague” written in red pen on the side of our exam papers, yet our institutions’ communications to us about pandemic-related action deserve those two words on almost every line.

The issue is intrinsically linked to a much larger problem with higher education – the assumption that the “average student” actually exists. Examination styles, accommodation pricing, course combinations, and much more are designed around a false approximation of what students want because, as frustrating as it must be from a logistics point of view, no two students and no two student experiences are alike. The “average student” may be able to follow the “too vague” communications described above but real students need tailored, detailed solutions that we can then apply to our own circumstances.

The handling of this crisis by universities, and their responses in the longer term, will undoubtedly be factors when students and their families think about the cost and value of degrees. Maybe we’ll get tired of paying thousands of pounds a year for something that doesn’t fully work for anybody. Or maybe characterising students as compliant is an accurate assumption after all and we’ll all just continue to suck it up because of the necessity of degrees for so many jobs. Perhaps I’m being too cynical - deep down we all know that there should be so much more to higher education than just going through the motions, getting a degree, getting a job, and probably ending up in debt, right? Still, can you really blame students for their disappointment at the present time?

However, as strange as it sounds, the current environment also has the potential to be exactly what the higher education sector needs – a catalyst for real change, an opportunity to prove that they truly value their students by engaging with us and proving to us that they are adapting and learning during and post-COVID-19. If nothing else, this terrible pandemic has proven that humans have a talent for adjustment, that altering how we operate day-to-day, whilst difficult, is entirely possible and in some cases beneficial. In other words, universities – currently failing due to one too many instances of “too vague” – are being given a chance at a resit, one they would be remiss to waste. If that sounds a bit harsh, well, welcome to being a student, where your future feels like it is decided over a very short period of time, usually two hours in an exam room. Since you’re probably tired of listening to a student giving their opinion (the horror!), here’s a Star Wars quote to think upon:

‘Anyone can make an error…But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’
- Grand Admiral Thrawn (from the 1991 novel Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn)

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