Covid is still with us, along with many restrictions and quasi-restrictions, even though this summer has in some ways appeared to be more “normal”, at least in the UK, than last. “Freedom Day” happened, although it was a bit of a damp squib – essentially, it consisted of the government telling us that it is now up to us to behave responsibly. Masks, social distancing and not gathering in large groups are no longer legally enforceable, but we have been warned that reckless behaviour might cause the numbers of infection and deaths to climb so rapidly that the government might have to impose another lockdown (despite the fact that formerly it was adamant that it wouldn’t). Shops, pubs and theatres have opened again, but have been encouraged to impose their own safeguarding rules; travelling abroad has been possible, but less so than last year, achievable only if you are prepared to jump through the many paperwork hoops created by almost all countries, including our own; are fully vaccinated; and prepared to spend quite hefty sums on lateral flow and PCR tests. So, a mixed picture, but perhaps with some light at the end of the tunnel.
And so we have reached the autumn and the start of a new university year. What will be significant about this academic year? What will distinguish it from its predecessors?
A key point that jumps out is that many students who had planned to begin their studies this year have now decided to defer. In certain subjects, at certain universities – e.g., Medicine – they have been offered a hefty financial incentive to do so.
Also in the news recently was that some British universities, including some from the Russell Group, have chartered planes to enable overseas students to travel to the UK without problems – in effect, creating a sort of “academic corridor” akin to the holiday corridors of summer 2020.
Most UK students who are planning to start or continue their courses this year have been told that while there will be more face-to-face teaching than last year, online learning will remain an important component of their tertiary education. Some seem to be dismayed or indignant about this, while others appear philosophical or even pleased. Parents, on the whole, are more vociferous in their disapproval. They perceive online delivery of lectures to be a substandard form of teaching, a “cheat” which does not merit full payment of the now-hefty tuition fees.
Finally, this year’s new cohorts of UK students have not had the traditional A level exams to arrive at their grades. Instead, these have been awarded largely on teacher recommendation. It has been controversial. Were the grades artificially inflated by over-indulgent teachers (or, in some instances, owing to the demands of pushy parents)? Or did the greater reliance on coursework and teacher judgment produce fairer results?
These four issues together are likely to produce a very different kind of student experience from that of pre-Covid years (last year cannot be counted as a comparator – it was hopefully a one-off!). Taken together, the first two issues are perhaps the most sensitive. Is it truly the case, as some educational commentators have asserted, that UK universities are keener on giving precious places to overseas rather than home students because they bring more money? Substantiating such a claim would require a great deal of granular course-by-course, university-by-university analysis. More broadly, it does suggest that, for whatever reason – lack of reliable digital infrastructure in overseas countries, unwillingness of overseas students to miss out on the physical experience of studying in the UK, the limited appeal that online lecture consumption has so far succeeded in achieving – universities are still far from being able to deliver a satisfactory online learning experience. This is reinforced by the lukewarm reception with which announcements that some teaching will remain online has been greeted. It overlooks the fact that if some UK students are admitted to British universities this autumn without the level of competence required to cope with first year work, online foundation / revision courses could offer them their best chance of getting up to scratch.
Publishers have a role to play here, as well as academics. It has long been recognised that technology could be put to much more creative use to deliver a better teaching and learning experience; at the same time, the development of such technology requires time and money – both in increasingly short supply to both academics and tertiary institutions – as well as a profound understanding of the mechanics, dynamics and legal issues attendant upon successful, compelling dissemination of content. Some enterprising publishers – not necessarily the ones that typically spring to mind as inspirational innovators – are already exploring ways of working with academia to develop exciting new kinds of content for undergraduates and attractive ways of delivering it. Gold Leaf hopes to publish occasional blog posts devoted to this topic.
We’re delighted to be able to continue to bring you news and insights in what promises to be a very interesting academic year. It’s also our twentieth birthday year, so there will be posts that celebrate this, too.
Officially, Gold Leaf was “born” on 1st September 2001. We’d like to thank all our clients, past and present and those about to work with us, for your support and we look forward to continuing to work with you. Let’s raise a glass to the next twenty years!
[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]