CAMBRIDGE University has announced that it is moving all its lectures online for the whole of the next academic year, until summer 2021. The vice chancellor of Edinburgh University says that packing students into lecture halls ‘isn’t going to be safe or possible’ for ‘some time to come’. Manchester University has confirmed that all learning will be online for the first term of the upcoming academic year. In a week when a new contact-tracing system of the type which all but stopped the spread of the virus in South Korea has been pledged for Britain, this is a grossly disproportionate response.
On Wednesday Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, predicted that the UK will soon see a sudden drop in Covid-19 deaths, the daily figure diminishing to zero by the end of June. Indeed Greece is so confident that Professor Heneghan is correct that its government has proposed establishing an ‘air bridge’ to the UK to enable British holidaymakers to travel safely to and from the country without being subject to quarantine restrictions as early as next month.
But the future impacts of coronavirus spread further than jet-setting holidaymakers. In just four months, thousands of young adults will be preparing to head off to university, many for the first time. There is currently a great deal of uncertainty surrounding this decision: Will my learning take place online? Will I be able to go out with friends? Can I get a refund on my property rent?
These sources of anxiety can be resolved in one swift decision by university chiefs: namely that campuses will be reopening in time for the academic year 2020/21. There are three principal reasons why such a decision would make scientific, economic and moral sense.
Firstly, there is much scientific evidence suggesting that the public health effects of the coronavirus pandemic have passed their peak and will subside steeply in the coming months. Evidence from schools, too, that have reopened across the globe suggests that learning environments comprised mostly of those not categorised as vulnerable are not hotbeds of infection, and as universities provide fewer contact hours than schools, I would suggest that there is even lower risk of the virus spreading.
Secondly, many students in a vulnerable financial position have already committed themselves to contracts with letting agents and landlords on the reasonable assumption that the academic year at their university will be completed in person on physical campuses. The government is not at present providing any support to students who have entered such contracts, and because online learning would negate the necessity to live in the vicinity of the university, many students would be forced to pay rent for an unused property in the university town, and possibly for another in their home town. This would wreak havoc on the precarious finances of hundreds of thousands of students.
Thirdly, there is every indication if courses are online for the academic year 2020/21, students will be legally obliged to pay full tuition fees, despite losing physical contact hours, access to libraries and other facilities such as laboratories, and social time with peers. Forcing students to pay full fees would be grossly unfair, and should be taken into serious consideration before the decision to shut campus grounds is taken by any more universities.
Coronavirus has been deadly, and may change the way we live our lives for years to come. But inappropriate, disproportionate responses such as closing university campuses to students for the entire academic year whilst schools reopen and businesses return to full operation would be absurd.