After a much quieter summer than Sheffield is used to, students are back. Small pockets of life begin to flourish in and around the city just as the leaves begin to fall. This time last year, the city centre was packed on a Friday or Saturday night, with vibrant and lively streets and a buzz in the air. On evenings nowadays, you will find your attention drawn to the array of warm, orange hues cast from the windows of students’ homes, many of whom are begrudgingly staying in; isolated and removed from the now uncertain outside world. This year promises to be unlike any other and brings with it an abundance of complications – many of which the University is attempting to tackle head on. But with what level of success and sustainability?
‘Blended learning’ or ‘a blend of face-to-face and online teaching’ were terms that many of us became familiar with as far back as July this year. As coronavirus promised to destroy many students’ plans, it was a reassuring proposal to have in place, especially for those of us who struggle to work from home, or whose courses depend on interactivity. But due to growing national concern surrounding the rising rates of infection within universities, Sheffield was forced to move the majority of its courses online from 9 October for 10 days. This came after many undergraduate courses had already commenced and were predominantly based online.
“Until the course started, I didn’t know what was going on,” says Leah*, a final year, International Law student. “My timetable was constantly changing and there were overlaps. I got an email just two days before my course start-date saying everything except tutorials would be online.” Leah is one of many international students in the unfortunate position of having travelled to Sheffield only to realise she could have completed most, if not all, of her studies online and from her home country.
“It was a responsible decision [to put classes online], but it wasn’t fair to say you have to come to Sheffield to complete this year,” she says. “Internationals pay double the fees… we get no money from the Government. Rent fees could have been avoided.”
According to a study by the Times Higher Education magazine in 2017, the UK was the sixth most expensive country worldwide to study in. This was based on both the tuition fees and living costs for a home student doing an undergraduate course. “A lot of parents give everything they have to provide you with this opportunity,” Leah adds. “[The University] could be more understanding towards fees.”
Reducing the physical contact hours between student and lecturer can bring about miscommunications and be harmful to their relationship. Body language and eye-contact are all vital to convey messages that transcend the spoken word. Not to mention that physical presence is a key aspect and source of learning for many engineering, medical and arts degrees. With courses often having minimal weekly contact hours to begin with, their importance has been overlooked.
Many reports claim that packed halls of residence and student nights out are to blame for the rise in infection rates as of late. This then, begs many a question: will courses remain online for the foreseeable future? Were teaching sessions being managed as effectively and safely as they could have been before they were put online? Do the advantages of suspending face-to-face teaching really outweigh the disadvantages? And should students be expected to pay the same fees for an arguably lesser service?
Despite the unrest and disorganisation around teaching, many university resources have remained stable and accessible for all. Some of which are the University library buildings. An essential in any student’s life, University libraries tend to evoke contrasting emotions; flashbacks of horror and all-nighters, or a feeling of comfort and security knowing that you can work in peace there. With the University now offering face masks to all its students and opening up the vast spaces available, government guidelines should be easy to adhere to.
The online booking system is relatively comprehensive: choose a seat, choose a time slot (am or pm), and stay there for only three hours. The Western Bank Library has a reduced capacity from 395 seats to 300 to ensure that social distancing is feasible. This, as well as a one-way system, separate entrances and exits, regular hand washing and sanitising points, and a strict no-go policy on the usual meandering saunter we students enjoy when trying to find a shelved book.
In spite of this, the gathering of so many people in one building will undoubtedly cause anxiety to some and make the library feel unsafe. The reduced capacity means that many students will have to decide whether a trip to study there is really necessary; unfortunately, an easy decision for the procrastinators amongst us.
“I personally struggle studying from home. I was that person at the library working overnight,” Leah comments. “But now I automatically don’t think to go to the library because I think I could possibly be spreading the virus. I need to give others the opportunity to use it.”
An element that seems to have only increased in strength since Covid struck are the various points of contact for support and assistance at the University, including the Student Wellbeing Service, SAHMS (counselling service), personal tutors, the SSID, the SU, disability services, direct correspondence with lecturers, and of course the Central Welfare and Guidance team, who now have an email specifically for coronavirus related student support. This support network provides a safety net for the entire student population and has helped place mental health and wellbeing and quality of life high on the list of priorities.
Masks, measures and mental health. It seems that these three ‘M’s’ are the big takeaways from Sheffield’s plan of attack against coronavirus. Whilst many other students, myself included, have our reservations about the sustainability of these plans, the last few months of Covid policy flip-flopping would suggest that the Government does too. It is hardly a stable ground for the University to build a solid foundation of support from, and so in that respect, their intentions and pro-activity are commendable.
However, it does seem likely that more stringent measures could have been put in place in order to ensure the safe running of classes and avoid their moving online. Lectures, seminars and workshops are the backbone of any course and having them online undermines the course quality and the talent of the lecturers who teach it. It surpasses an ‘adequate’ measure and verges into the realm of unnecessary for the sake of ease, compromising the integrity of the course.
By all means, the University has a duty to keep us safe, meet our needs, and support us as best they can. But for what else would you pay £9,250 and upwards and expect any less than an exceptional service?
*name changed for anonymity