UCU have started a petition to encourage online learning; what does actually this mean for students?

person writing on notebook

The start to arguably the most wildly unpredictable semester in higher education has not been easy, and with news emanating around the sector recently of a pre-Christmas lockdown for students, things certainly already sound more complicated.

One of the biggest issues about the past few months though has arguably been the lack of transparency behind key decisions made across the sector.

We wrote several weeks ago about how Sabbatical Officers could have written recent SAGE recommendations back in March, and also about the disaster of students returning to accommodation over the past month. Students’ Unions have been well ahead of the curve in predicting the issues that have come up well ahead of their time; but either haven’t been taken seriously or listened to by the people making decisions.

As fearful as Universities may have been in overpromising and under delivering this year; it is too late for them as this has already happened with locking thousands of students in halls of residences.

It is now essential that this does not get further out of hand, and both the NUS, SAGE and UCU have all now made it clear their desire for online teaching to be implemented for courses.

The UCU have taken direct action around this, and have now moved towards a petition which you can find here, accompanied with five requests for the Government to take on.

But what does a move to online teaching actually mean, and is it a good idea?

Online teaching represents a decision which is ultimately more than likely in the best interests of students themselves, and also the national interest. The big stumbling block of course is whether it lies in the best interests of Universities themselves; and this is where things become ultimately much more clouded.

It is definitely a priority for universities to ensure their students have the best experience they possibly can. Ultimately in person teaching does aid them with that, particularly in the case of more practical courses. Without students having a good experience, there’s little ambition there for them to want to continue with their year ahead or degree even. The obvious block to this for Universities though is they need to keep their students safe, and it seems needless to pursue in person teaching purely just to make teaching a bit more exciting in some cases.

A move to online teaching creates complications around whether students should even have moved from home in the first place; it gives headaches about value for money of degrees and above all it just isn’t quite “the same”. The true test for universities in this sense is trying to find a way to get the right result for different priorities in a lose/lose situation; and that’s where pressure from the UCU and NUS may force them to fall down (rightly or wrongly) on the side of moving teaching online.

The issue is foresight and finance

But if calls about online teaching had been listened to in the first place, would universities actually find themselves in this predicament? Probably not.

There’s been a fair bit of publicity recently about whether it was the right thing to do to let students return, and there’s certainly a fair enough point made in asking whether it actually was. Had universities just accepted moving online would have to be a long-term thing, it would have saved a lot of heartbreak and a lot of headaches. It also would have burned a hole in some balance sheets though, and would have made financial life for some very wealthy institutions a lot more precarious; a lot more quickly.

The issue in this sense does all boil down to finances as it often has in the coronavirus pandemic. Balancing financial pressures in a world with coronavirus alongside safety and security is always a difficult one, as it becomes really quite difficult for any industry.

The absence of governmental support in the higher education sector has been rather profound too, particularly for a government who have seemed so keen to place an emphasis on value of courses and tuition fees, and have just left universities to get on with it during the pandemic. Higher education has been somewhat looked down upon with frustration from this government anyway, and it was never going to be top of the list of areas that need support when the crisis took place. The issue has ultimately been that it has left students to suffer the worst impacts of this crisis though, and yet again decisions around face-to-face teaching will impact on them yet again.

A sector bailout would give universities the financial security to know they can move to face-to-face teaching without worrying about their existence; but for many institutions they will consider any bailout package to erode their autonomy and individualism. It’s a tough balance for the sector to manage – but one that needs to be right for the sake of students.

So what do students need to do, and will this petition have any impact?

It’s always good for students to talk to students’ union officers, but now seems as good of a time as any to find out what vice-chancellors are actually planning both short and long-term. The idea of moving to online teaching is supported by the NUS and the UCU and it’s probably the right call; and honest conversations need to be had about why it can’t be considered long-term.

Whether this petition will have impact or not is hard to say, but it certainly feels like it’s going to be unlikely. The issue of course is the transparency that simply isn’t there, and the meetings taking place between universities, government and other sector bodies will never be shared openly until a big decision is made and the sector has to deal with it.

Rather than everyone working constructively to make higher education a better place during this pandemic, the politics of the sector has got in the way one too many times and it’ll continue to do so.

The problem is that those most impacted by these decisions ultimately have much less of an opportunity to talk about them; until as always it’s too late. Now is an opportunity for Universities to be proactive and move online long-term now, rather than being reactive and be forced to do it deeper into the winter anyway.

Why should students care?

A move to online teaching is more than likely going to benefit everyone, and ultimately is a common sense approach. Online teaching isn’t what students have “paid” for, nor is it what they were promised, as a blended approach ultimately was the experience many institutions have backed. However, as we now find the country is now entering a second wave it is clear that everything needs a rethink.

A movement to online teaching will no doubt create a much safer learning atmosphere; but also will give the sector a reality check about what has been offered to students and how sensible it is going forwards.

Safety at the moment has to ultimately be the priority for everybody, and online teaching at least offers that for now. The hardest part will be working out a long-term solution that truly benefits everyone, and it is critical that universities work with government and other sector bodies to do that.

Campaigning Prioirities

What options do you have then? Well, if you agree with it you can sign, share and endorse this petition. You can also talk to your local UCU branch to find out more about it. It’s important that discussions are had about online teaching and both its general practicality and feasibility.

Also, you can speak to your University and ask their plans for online teaching over the coming months in meetings such as senate, or learning and teaching committees.

By having these discussions, it will open the opportunity for not just a safer learning experience, but also one which genuinely works for everybody.

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