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‘We’re planning all of this very carefully’ – no social distancing on campus but online learning is here to stay, says Vice-Principal

cleaning social distancing campus KCL

Roar writer Noah Eastwood on King’s plans to remove social distancing on campus and retain online learning. 

Students and staff will not be required to socially distance as term restarts this September while masks, testing, and vaccinations will be “recommended”, Roar can reveal. In a letter sent in reply to my recent article criticising the treatment of students during and before the pandemic Vice-Principal and Interim Vice-President (Education) Adam Fagan laid out a few of the preparations senior leadership are making for the upcoming academic year. The correspondence, which we publish below, offers some encouraging words for those eager to get back to student life, but online learning is set to continue and concerns over fees remain completely unaddressed as King’s prepares for one of its largest, and potentially most profitable student intakes yet.

Senior officers at King’s are “actively planning” for a revival of campus life with libraries, study spaces, bars, cafes, and on-site access to student services all expected to reopen. In June it was announced that King’s would host an in-person Freshers’ Fair and KCLSU currently have a packed schedule of events on offer at Guy’s Bar and The Vault for incoming first-years.

“There’s nothing that we all want to see more than our students and staff on campus”, said Professor Fagan. Many will welcome this optimism.

Undergraduates who enrolled before the pandemic will have now spent more than half of their degrees away from campus. Having a socially stimulating learning environment is critical to academic success and attending university from the bedroom or going to a study space à la exam hall has at times been a far cry.

As we return in September social distancing rules and one-way systems on campus will be scrapped. Professor Fagan writes wrote to me: “for the start of the academic year, in line with UK government guidance we will not ask students and staff to physically distance on our campuses”. Measures such a mask-wearing, testing, and vaccinations will be “recommended” with centres being opened across campus on a walk-in basis. “We will be asking students and staff to take regular asymptomatic Covid tests” he continues, leaving some ambiguity over whether it will be possible to opt out. Ultimately, universities will be looking to the government for the harder decisions about making such things mandatory. Though as we have seen, students are usually an afterthought in national Covid policy and ministers have not ruled out making access to higher education conditional on vaccine status.

King’s will continue to use online learning as a feature in most degree programmes. “We will have in-person teaching, complemented by technology and online learning where it enhances the learning experience” stated the Vice-Principal in his letter, with the exact delivery of modules being a matter for faculty. So far, 20 out of 24 Russel Group universities plan to keep a proportion of undergraduate teaching online despite the lifting of restrictions and scientific advisor Neil Furgeson saying that lockdowns are unlikely to occur in the future. There cannot be many students who would claim their education has actually been “enhanced” this past year. Thousands of students at Manchester and UCL recently signed petitions against what the universities have termed “blended learning”. The issue is clearly controversial, which makes King’s enthusiasm for online learning all the more curious. It even seems to have become something of a selling point. One department advertising postgraduate courses boast of using “multiple modes of delivery” including “residential, online, and blended”.

Questions over fees remain unanswered while the case for a rebate grows stronger. Professor Fagan failed to respond to concerns raised in my previous article about students being overcharged for a year of online learning. Currently, home students pay £9,250 per year while international students can be charged as much as £20,790. Degrees from the Open University, where courses are taught fully online, cost just £6,336 per annum. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson recently stated that “I think that if universities are not delivering what students expect then they shouldn’t be charging the full fees.” This comes as a record number of students achieved their first choice of university, forcing some universities including King’s out of UCAS clearing and adjustment programmes. This year’s A-Level cohort is the second to have had their exams cancelled and as a result grade inflation has risen dramatically since the start of the pandemic.

Universities are coming under mounting pressure as Covid forces the cracks to show through in an already flawed higher education system. The government would have to legislate for any tuition fee rebate and powers to fine higher education institutions are held by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, part of the UK’s Office for Students. Only in limited circumstances are appeals won, making comprehensive fee change unlikely. But more political pressure on university administrators might make them think twice about online learning. King’s leadership have shown a positive attitude toward the coming academic year but continued online learning is going to start to look increasingly out of place. No one can truly say that campus is “open” if our education is still largely online.

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