The coronavirus crisis has thrown the future of university education up into the air, with many graduation ceremonies cancelled or postponed and student life brought to a standstill, forcing universities to rethink how they provide education to their students safely. With the UK bracing for a second wave of the virus later in the year, some universities have already made the decision to shift their studies online.
More than 111,000 applicants – roughly one in six – who were due to start their degrees this autumn now want to take a gap year and wait until 2021 when campuses are more likely to be fully open. Meanwhile those in England going ahead with their degrees in September will have to foot the full cost of their education even if their courses are taught online, with universities minister Michelle Donelan commenting that the government doesn't "believe students will be entitled to reimbursement if the quality is there".
Bella, 18, is due to start her geography undergraduate degree at Jesus College, Cambridge, in September and says she's disappointed that she'll miss out on the student experience. "I was quite shocked at first when they [Cambridge University] said it would be the entire year, my heart dropped," she says. "Going to university is an experience in itself, so missing out on freshers', matriculation and potentially balls and meals is also confusing and sad in a way because I've been looking forward to them."
I was shocked when they said it would be the entire year, my heart dropped.
The experience would have been even more important for her, she adds, as she is one of just two students from her Cheshire state school who were offered Oxbridge places. "It's so scary for me as I would've relied on the first year to make new friends. Although online freshers' pages have been established, I'm quite shy and prefer face to face as opposed to mass Zoom calls with people I don't know."
While she's grateful that she can continue her education online (institutes are also working to get students back on campus safely), Bella can't help but feel torn about having to pay the full tuition fee. "At this point, we'll be paying £9,250 and circa £5,000 for accommodation; these fees are astronomical for students and it's upsetting that we won't get the full 'teaching experience'.
"And we aren't allowed to defer," Bella frets. "You can only defer 'with good reason' and for another academic year you have to reapply. I don't even know if I could get in again if I reapplied, so it's horrible."
Tallula, a medical student at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, agrees. "This is frustrating because we will still be paying in full for a service we didn't pay for and expected to pay rent to mostly stay in our rooms and not be able to utilise other areas to their usual extent."
She adds: "It makes me sad that my group of medics will lose the ability to walk to our lectures together on a daily basis as this was how we became tight-knit. It's even sadder that freshers may never have this."
It makes me sad that my group of medics will lose the ability to walk to our lectures together on a daily basis. It's even sadder that freshers may never have this.
Tallula, who is 20, is due to start her third year at Cambridge where she is studying biological anthropology. She says the thought of online lectures when she's about to start a new module terrifies her. "Much of our staff is rather old and recordings in the past have had technical difficulties," she says. "This isn't the standard we expect when we are held to such high standards ourselves."
She adds: "I am worried that my enjoyment for the course will be reduced. I also suffer from mental health issues so having fellow students around to encourage me to get to lectures, as well as the social aspect, will be lost, which is sad but unavoidable."
It's unclear whether other universities will follow Cambridge and Manchester's lead but the National Union of Students (NUS) says campuses need to be transparent about what students can expect in the coming year. It also says that universities must refund students their tuition fees for the disruption they have faced during the coronavirus outbreak.
NUS President Zamzam Ibrahim told R29: "Students are and always have been our priority and we welcome measures that prioritise students’ safety. It is important institutions take measures to do this in light of the ever changing pandemic. Students need clarity as to what they can expect from the next academic year in order for them to make informed choices and all staff must continue to be paid regardless of this decision.
She adds: "The government needs to move quickly to work with the higher education sector to ensure that all students are able to receive quality education next year and have the resources they need to engage with online learning. Students must be given the opportunity to redo this year at no extra cost, or to have their course fees reimbursed or written off."
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. It says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.