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Attending university in a Covid-19 World: how much has earning a degree changed?

When I, like millions of students first moved away, or returned, to university in the autumn of 2019, no one expected that within six months we would all be back home again, or shut away in our accommodation, communicating with our classmates and lecturers via a screen. We were all thinking: ‘It is only the flu, we will all be back after Easter’. How wrong we were. 18 months later, the majority of university students were only just returning to in-person lectures, seminars and tutorials, but in a drastically altered format. In an opinion poll of 500 students about the impact of Covid-19 on further education, run by StudentHut in March 2020, over 50% were more worried about a neglected education than their own health. How much has the university experience changed? Will these changes become the status quo?

The recording of lectures became a necessity, not a privilege

Similar to businesses and schools, universities panicked. How could lecturers get their content across with their students not in the same room? Pre-Covid, for many students recorded lectures were exceptional. But with the help of Teams, Zoom, recording applications and PowerPoint’s narration feature, modules could continue whilst students were spread across the world. In the same StudentHut poll, 1 in 3 students said they would prioritise a university that offered more online or distance learning, as early as March 2020. Even once in-person teaching restarted, recording continued, meaning if students, or indeed the lecturers themselves, were isolating with Covid or other illnesses no-one was at a disadvantage. It also ensured that no material should be missed, as a lecture could be re-watched by attendees at a later date for more detailed note-taking or revision. I even undertook an entire Group Project with great success via Teams, having never actually met my peers in person! Now universities have the technologies and understanding to do this, it would be a shame to backtrack.

Online meetings or email exchanges with lecturers enabling short-notice communication

In the same vein, private meetings with module leaders can now be undertaken online more quickly, or last-minute, if required. Similarly, now that both students and staff alike are expected to have a larger online presence, email exchanges have increased in speed. Issues that materialised in the writing of essays can be solved quickly as a lecturer will likely see the email or Teams notification while in another online meeting or on their phone. I doubt that the university experience will return to a purely in-person arrangement now that this easier format is so widely used.

The surge of library material being digitalised, making remote research much easier

Having undertaken a History degree, I quickly realised how difficult it was to research my essay topics using traditional undergraduate sources such as journal articles and books via the Internet during lockdowns. They often required expensive online subscriptions or purchasing physical books. However, thankfully, many universities quickly realised this and soon the online library catalogues were full of digitalised material. My university even started a free postal service, meaning one could even access hard copies. With the way most work is becoming increasingly undertaken virtually, I can see such systems going from strength-to-strength. That being said, there is nothing quite like sitting in a library surrounded by books!

Changes to assessments with halting of in-person exams

Along with two years of GCSEs and A Levels, university in-person exams quickly ceased. As a result, assessment formats had to be altered at very short notice. For my course, this meant our exams were replaced with time-bound, open-book written assessments. In fact, these were so successful that we never returned to in-person exams despite that becoming an option this academic year. In essay subjects such as History and English, open-book assessments are often a more effective method of assessing a candidate’s capabilities in the areas of research and writing. However, for the more scientific subjects, exams are often a more suited assessment, so exams should not be scrapped in their entirety. Additionally, universities have had to become much more amenable to extending assessment deadlines when extenuating circumstances arise.

To conclude, while Covid-19 was a devastating event in our lives, it forced universities to become more forward-thinking and flexible, and to adapt to a different method of working. Therefore, future applicants to universities should expect to see the current models in place across the country remain in place, or expand. Hopefully we will never have to experience that hardship again, but if we do, I believe the education sector, and universities in particular, will be better prepared for it.

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