Online learning should not become a permanent part of higher education
Never let a good crisis go to waste. This has certainly been the philosophy of certain forward-thinking university administrators this week. The University of Manchester, currently ranked as the 13th best in the country, unveiled plans to keep lectures permanently online — with no reduction in tuition fees. As a result of this policy, students affected by the coronavirus pandemic will face their third year without in person teaching, and still be expected to pay out an eye-watering £9,250 in tuition fees per year.
For a generation that already spends a massive proportion of our time staring at screens, the news that yet another in-person aspect of our life is being cut back on is disheartening. Manchester students responded negatively, with 89% opposing the University’s decision, citing the mental distress they felt at the prospect of less face-to-face interaction.
Online learning was unpopular even when it was necessary: student satisfaction plummeted during the pandemic, with 44% saying their course was poor value for money in 2020, up from 29% the year prior. Unsurprisingly, the majority of complaints centred around a lack of in-person contact, in regards to both teaching staff and other students.
Of course, while the restrictions were unpleasant, students also understood the necessity of social distancing procedures — with the underlying assumption being that, once the pandemic had run its course, life would return to normal. Without the Covid crisis, universities like Manchester will struggle to justify why they are continuing a programme of online learning without students jumping to the obvious conclusion — they wish to improve their profit margins.
And now, for this pandemic cohort of students, this sense of displacement has been artificially extended. After all, how can you develop the important skills universities like Manchester claim to value while stuck in a tiny dorm room, zoning out during your fifth online class of the week?
That is why Manchester’s decision has provoked such an outrage. We all know the quality of education is shoddy, but it’s ‘The Experience’ — interacting with new people, trailing round over-priced and under-whelming clubs, and moving into a grotty student house — that draws young people in. Once the clubs and bars were shut and you’re left confined in your room, a large chunk of students (myself included) came to realise that we didn’t actually like our degrees – at least, we certainly didn’t like ‘blended learning’.
In the long run, we may see the move to online learning as a positive thing, as students come to realise that they’re paying so much for so little. But the real tragedy will be the loss of everything that comes with it: independence, freedom, and excitement — the sort of feelings you’ll rarely experience during a Zoom lecture. Now that online, remote learning seems to be here to stay, future generations will lose out of this last rite of adulthood available to us.