After completing her undergraduate degree at Oxford University, influencer Vee Kativhu was preparing to begin her postgraduate studies at Harvard University in the fall, but COVID-19 had different plans.
In light of the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, Harvard University announced that all of its classes will be online for the next year. While this wasn’t a surprise for many, what did come as a shock was the decision presented to their students: either pay full tuition for online classes, missing out on the usual in-person Harvard experience, or reject your offer of admission and risk not being accepted again for the following year.
For Vee, this has been an impossible choice: pay nearly $60,000 for an online degree or reject your dream school and possibly never earn this chance at a Harvard education again, as Harvard does not accept deferrals.
But as universities make the move online, this has become a reality for many students. For universities that are returning to some in-person classes, international students faced with travel restrictions and those with significant health conditions must still pay full tuition for online education if they cannot physically return to campus. And, if students are facing financial hardship or disagree with the principle, the options are even scarcer.
At the University of St Andrews, tuition for international students can be as high as £23,910 (the tuition fee for 2020 entrants), and, at time of writing, the University has not communicated any plans to adjust this if these students cannot return to campus and thus must complete the semester – or year – online.
This approach to tuition fees is one shared by the representative body of tertiary education: speaking at a briefing outlining Universities UK’s guidelines for exiting lockdown, its chair, Julia Buckingham, said the significant investment that universities were funnelling into online learning, campus overhauls, and improved mental health support meant that most students should not expect to receive refunds if they are unhappy with their experience, whether they are online or not.
This is in spite of a poll from the University and College Union (UCU) which found that three quarters of surveyed university applicants said that they would prefer for the academic year to start later to enable them to receive more face-to-face teaching and fewer online lessons.
A key issue with the argument that online teaching should still be priced at full tuition as long as it is up to standard is that a student’s tuition does not only pay for their learning. At a typical university in the UK, tuition also goes towards the Students’ Association and the events that they hold; resources available at libraries where they are not fully available online; and study spaces and technology offered across campus.
And the “university experience” does not just include partying and pub crawls. Being on campus means that students can attend academic talks and networking events, participate in extracurricular activities which support a CV and often serve as work experience, sign up for events which support learning such as free language speaking sessions or academic societies, and the ability to meet and interact with other students in halls of residence and through societies.
Yet, even when focusing on the learning itself, it is clear to me that online learning does not provide the same experience nor quality as in-person teaching. In a survey of students from the University of St Andrews, about 62 per cent of students said that they did not feel motivated by or engaged with their studies during lockdown. Additionally, 41 per cent of students said that their learning was supported by an appropriate study environment, such as a quiet place to work, and only 34 percent felt that their learning experience in lockdown had been good for their wellbeing. These are all problems for which the University has not yet underlined clear solutions.
In terms of online examinations, a key element to online learning, only half of students felt that their study environment was suitable for taking exams, while 43 per cent felt motivated to prepare, 38 percent thought online exams were a fair way to be assessed, 63 per cent believed that online examinations were more stressful than normal exams, and only 32 per cent felt that they could deliver their best performance in online exams.
The survey results also demonstrated to me that the University is just not equipped to provide online teaching and examinations at the same calibre as in-person learning. Particularly standing out to myself was the fact that students had asked via the survey for greater access to digital resources, especially with the lack of a physical Main Library, and more interactive “live discursive teaching”.
While the University has said that they are currently working towards solutions on these problems, no more communication has been made with students regarding online teaching, examinations, and to what quality they will be delivered to those students who cannot return to campus yet are still expected to pay full tuition.
With a lack of the essential university experience, whether that be networking events, academic resources, or CV-boosting society activities, alongside what is in my view, the subpar delivery of online learning and examinations, the University of St Andrews cannot reasonably demand that students who cannot return to campus must pay full tuition for online classes.