As we head toward the dog days of summer or, if you are a farmer, preparations for harvest, another academic year comes to a close, at least for universities. It has been a year like no other, certainly during the Trinity or summer term. Campuses have been deserted as students work from home as much of the rest of society.
In the case of the Royal Agricultural University Cirencester, where I am a part-time senior lecturer, we only lost a couple of days of the spring term in mid-March before closure. However, that led to serious consideration of how the summer term might be conducted and the academic year successfully completed. We spent hours recording lectures on a computer programme called Panopto so students could access them from home. For my part, I recorded a voice-over for PowerPoint slides on the basis that students should be looking at them during a lecture rather than a video image of me.
The next issue was exams, how could they be taken or replaced? I believe that many universities conducted exams online but that poses some problems, especially if any students have unreliable broadband connections. My older son has taken exams online as part of his legal qualifications and, on one occasion, the connection was lost just as he finished, so he had to re-sit! At the RAU it was decided that exams could not be reliably taken online so we had to set alternative coursework. I set six questions from the exam and students had a week to write two essays.
By the time you read this, all marks will have been submitted and grading will be underway. I feel very sorry for all students, but particularly for those third year undergraduates who have lost their last term. There was no May Ball, no celebrating the end of exams in the pub, no last few weeks sharing a cottage or flat with friends. Even the graduation ceremony, ever a happy occasion, has been postponed to some unknown date in the future.
There are other important events that have been cancelled or postponed as a result of the pandemic. My alma mater, Keble College Oxford was 150 years old earlier this month and there were many celebrations planned, none of which have taken place. The RAU is 175 years old this year and, again, all celebratory events have been cancelled or postponed. Some events can take place online but that is not the same, as shown by Royal Ascot last week.
Now thoughts turn to the new academic year. Still three months away, there may be many changes in policy during that time. A second spike may cause a renewed lockdown or all social distancing may have been relaxed. The RAU is assuming that the next year will start in September and that students will be on campus at that time. If social distancing is still set at two metres, live lectures will be impossible as even the largest lecture theatre can only hold around twenty students at two metres apart. Thus it is planned that all lectures will be online as this term.
However, it is expected that there will be small group teaching face-to-face as well as online lectures. This poses a huge logistical problem. If there is a cohort of eighty students, they could be broken into groups of twenty and seminars delivered four times. That would not be possible on a weekly or perhaps even fortnightly basis as there would not be the staff time or room availability to cope.
So the planning comes back to bubbles. If a group of students could form a bubble, social distancing between them might not be necessary. They would live in the same block on campus or other student accommodation, attend the same lectures and seminars and have the same break and meal times. I am told that there have been 75 different scenarios considered but no final decisions have yet been taken on the ‘road to September’.
There also have to be plans in place should anyone on campus come down with the virus. Isolation accommodation will have to be available and all arrangements in place for quarantine. I am very glad that I am not part of the planning group considering the options. Of course, by September, social distancing may have been abandoned in which case we could be almost back to normal.
Another issue to consider is how many students we can expect, especially those coming from overseas. Will potential students defer for a year? Gap year globetrotting is very unlikely so the only point would be to gain work experience. Some students may be reluctant to live on campus with hundreds of others and may wish to live at home, especially if lectures are online. But that loses the most valuable part of a university education, social interaction.
Of course, there are financial implications as well. The RAU is not a rich university and has a relatively small number of students. In that context, the loss of other income is significant, conferences and other events, not least the hundreds of Italian schoolchildren that descend on the place every July and August. Some universities may not survive or will reinvent themselves, perhaps as the technology colleges from whence they came. The RAU should survive as training for farmers and surveyors will always be needed. What is undeniable is that this Covid-19 pandemic has had a fundamental impact on all aspects of our lives.