Universities are failing their students during the coronavirus outbreak

Communication must improve and students should be consulted on finding new assessment methods, says Brian Wong

March 25, 2020
fail, failure, F, grade

The Covid-19 outbreak is an unprecedented public health crisis. Yet it has also exposed the worst in university administrations across the world.

The pandemic has understandably caught most universities off guard. Yet in the US and the UK, mixed signals and conflicting advice from different levels of academic administrations have left students feeling forsaken and unwelcome.

When Harvard University – charging $46,000 (£39,000) a year per student – gave their students five days’ notice to leave their student accommodation, the first thought in many of the 20-year-olds’ minds was not the looming threat of the lethal virus but the imminent question of where to go or stay.

More than 200 colleges and universities in the US have closed in response to the crisis, leaving many students, including those with precarious socio-economic or family circumstances and limited financial capital, stranded without options.

Two Chinese students at a college at the University of Cambridge were told by a tutor that they must leave their accommodation promptly – despite the significant difficulties in securing tickets, and the heightening risks associated with extended international travel.

While the official statement from the vice-chancellor proclaimed that “all students unable to return home will be accommodated by their college”, the official message clearly had not percolated to the level of dons within colleges.

For many international students – already encumbered by travel restrictions, their visas precariously contingent upon their residential and student status, and deprived of flight options – the short notice barely gave them sufficient time to pack, let alone navigate the complex quagmire of residence in a foreign country.

Even for domestic students seeking stability from institutions to which they devote their academic careers and significant resources, the mercurial stances of administrations have rendered them overwhelmed by anxiety and uncertainty in the face of massive disruptions to their learning and work routines.

Indubitably this is an evolving situation to which rapid adjustments must be made. Yet it is also abundantly clear that universities can and should do better in their communication with students, as well as in ensuring that a robust safety net is available for all those who rely upon university accommodation as a last resort.

Meanwhile, racism is on the rise in the West, and Asian students have been subjected to extensive verbal and even physical abuse for their alleged association with the virus. Chinese students, myself included, are caught between a rock and a hard place: taking precautions such as wearing a mask or using hand sanitiser would open us up to ridicule for being “sick”, yet doing nothing would not only expose us to the virus but hostility stemming from stereotypes that Chinese people are “dirty” and “uncivilised” individuals.

In face of these calamities, international students feel abandoned and neglected by administrations that are delivering platitudes rather than genuinely engaging in substantive welfare support. That a University of California Berkeley post about managing coronavirus anxiety listed xenophobia against Asians a “normal reaction” reflects more than a gaffe on the university administration’s part. It shows that the administration, at best, is failing to tackle head-on an insidiously propagated belief that hostility towards a racial “other” – for so long somewhat concealed – could be permitted in times of crisis.

The transition to online teaching is not without its substantial setbacks for many students. Some may lack stable households or suitable environments in which sustained remote learning is feasible; others may suffer because of differences in time zones. University administrators ought to do better than, as some have in private correspondence with their students, dismissing students’ concerns as they tackle issues of allegedly greater importance.

As examinations are cancelled, postponed or shifted online, questions over the appropriate grading system will inevitably arise. Administrations need not settle upon concrete answers at this point, but should – out of consideration for fairness and accessibility – at least give their students a say over what could well be results that define their futures. A student body that feels engaged and involved in university decision-making is also one that is more likely to be communicative and cooperative in the months ahead.

This epidemic is a natural disaster – but the woes of students worldwide are no less the products of inflexible and unsympathetic bureaucracy. I am fortunate to attend a college (Wolfson, University of Oxford) that has been incredibly supportive during these trying times. Yet this is sadly by no means the norm. If we are truly to have an inclusive and open education for all, universities must do better.

Brian Wong is an MPhil candidate in politics at the University of Oxford and editor-in-chief of the student-led Oxford Political Review.

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Reader's comments (7)

Universities are repositories of centuries of knowledge about how do manage education. Sadly, very little of this is of any relevance to the current crisis. New ways of thinking and working are needed to support students and their learning. Unfortunately, many current HE leaders are ill equiped for innovation and they are supported in this by regulatory bodies who cling to the past. We need to out students first and worry less about reputations and financial sustainability. The universities which come out of this strongest will be those whose work, during the crisis, is most valued by students.
put out students first (not out) sorry for the typo
What Solkin wrote.
I think this is rather unfair. I don't know about all universities but mine is working flat-out to keep students informed as we take EVERYTHING online to ensure continuity of both teaching and assessment. My research area is online learning so I'm advising and helping the rest of the department as well as doing my own work :) Carping isn't helpful, I don't see much in the way of concrete suggestions for improvement in this article.
The activities of the World Health Organization in meeting this crisis are noteworthy. We need many more organizations similar to WHO to meet future epidemics...
All Universities will be doing everything they can to ensure the health and wellbeing of their students and the ongoing provision of online learning during the current crisis. Most students I'm sure will be extremely appreciative of the efforts being taken by their tutors and administrative staff, knowing they too are facing similar challenges in being able to complete their daily tasks and have similar worries about their own health ,that of their loved ones and their financial future. It is a time to work together, to be more tolerant and less critical of people who are doing their utmost to try and help.
Have to agree that this is rather unfair. Universities that acted quickly to send students home should not be faulted for taking the first action on curbing the virus. Further, faculty should not be faulted for dealing with a sudden change to online delivery (whether or not they are familiar with this environment, we know it takes time to plan a good online course), and the many who also deal with children at home. Agreed that international students have a difficult situation. I see my own institution balancing government directives that students must leave, with their own knowledge of the needs of the students.

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