There’s something quite profound about those images of university students dangling out of campus windows, wailing, "We’ve only enough milk to last us ’til Tuesday," at passing TV crews.
There’s a giant, whopping hole between what’s been sold to young people throughout their education regarding the great adventure of university life and the displaced reality of their 2020 experience.
The chasm is so grotesque that it would be chuckle-worthy were it not so sad. It reminds me of those pictures of knock-off frocks that crop up on Facebook – glamorous models in designer wedding dresses next to snaps of scowling women squished into the nasty, nylon, ten-quid-mess that turns up in the post. But in that scenario, there’s a very clear "you get what you pay for" vibe, whereas the students seem like they’ve been Del Boy’ed out of nine grand by the system.
Frustrated university students
Here in Nottingham, a relatively small city with two big universities, the consequence of pretending that the virus was on the wane is that, as I write, we are number one in the UK for confirmed Covid cases. However, it doesn’t feel right to be stood on my doorstep waving my fist and blaming "those bloody students" for spreading germs, even though that is the general assumption for our local spike.
I do feel ranty about the situation that many students find themselves in. Can you imagine? You’re expecting passionate debates, wild parties and the discovery of a million different potential life paths, and you end up stuck in solitary with a laptop and a multipack of Quavers. It must be confusing, unsettling, lonely. If I was a kid in a similarly desperate position, brand new to adulthood, stranded in a strange city, without the support that routine and clear boundaries provide, I’d no doubt break the rules, too – that’s assuming I’d gained some clarity on what the rules were.
There is blame. I blame the universities for allowing students to believe that their courses would be anything significantly more robust than online learning. And as a big fan of the Open University who has been doing the distance learning schtick for years, I can attest that the format can be very robust. You don’t need to move away from home, though; that’s sort of the point… Maybe more worthy of blame are the shady student accommodation providers who made it difficult for students to pursue other options, in light of the pandemic.
This year’s shit show and subsequent loss of trust in the universities sector has bunged a massive question mark over the value of the whole university experience. There’s no question about the value of learning to a higher level – that’s vital. But for some courses, loads of courses I should imagine, is it really necessary to actually up sticks and move there?
A big part of going to university is leaving home and starting life as a semi-adult, with lots of grown-up responsibility but underpinned by an institutional support network. For lots of young people, it’s a three-year transition time, working out who they are as well as what they want to do for a living. One of the factors in deciding where to go to university is the city, the campus, the buildings – some of which are synonymous with a heritage of tradition. Through necessity, this year has shown that in many cases associating physical place with a level of learning isn’t really relevant any more. "Going to Cambridge" currently means accessing courses online that are developed and taught by people who work at the university. It doesn’t necessarily mean "going to Cambridge".
Colleges offering HE
If the need for student relocation is potentially not a thing any more, then physical place suddenly seems a bit superfluous in lots of areas of HE and in some areas of FE, too. And as a consequence, what does that mean for the estates landscape – all those buildings that have been billed as great assets to organisations, both in terms of student offer and long-term financial investment? All that money tied up in "state of the art" monuments to institutions, many of which are currently Mary Celeste versions of their former selves?
In light of this unexpected year that’s changed so much, I have some *strategic advice to bequeath, so brace yourselves colleagues. Ahem… Are you ready?
If I were THE BOSS OF FE, I’d be suggesting that wherever possible colleges should start working on a comprehensive HE offer. Or if a college already has a chunky set of HE courses, I’d be going all out to boost the visibility of ‘em.
I’m at a dead end as to how the universities sector could pull it back from the brink. No idea whatsoever, not even a dodgy one. Soz.
*Mrs Simons knows naff-all about how cash "n" that works in the FE sector due to having almost no interest in it. She’s more of a "big picture" woman. Therefore this may be shit strategic advice… What?
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat