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Donelan: online teaching could jeopardise students’ learning

Image: David Woolfall [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Universities minister orders in-person teaching but scientists warn of consequences

Universities minister Michelle Donelan has told universities to keep offering in-person teaching throughout the upcoming lockdown in England, as scientists warn the issue “has become divisive”.

In a letter to vice-chancellors published on 2 November, Donelan stressed that the government does not “want or expect to see a transition to full online learning during the new national restrictions­–this could jeopardise the learning that students receive, as well as risk their mental health and wellbeing”.

She said universities should “continue to agree with their local public health teams the appropriate balance of online and in-person teaching” based on public health risks, including mental health concerns.

Donelan also warned universities they “must at all times maintain the quality of their tuition”. “If more teaching is moved online, providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards,” Donelan said, as she stressed that the Office for Students is “regularly reviewing online tuition”.

But members of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which offers independent advice on the Covid-19 pandemic, have said the issue of online teaching “has become divisive and has detracted from the wider ramifications of maintaining in-person contact for many things”, such as the spread of Covid-19.

“It’s important to remember that every in-person class requires lots of student and staff journeys­–if you multiply this across universities, it equates to thousands and thousands of unnecessary trips,” group member Elizabeth Stokoe told Research Professional News, adding that face-to-face teaching “breaks residential bubbles every single time”.

Stokoe also said that “students should be permitted to make a single trip home at any point from now to avoid large-scale movements in December, with no penalty in terms of accommodation costs”, and they “should be offered the choice of whether to live on campus, in their university accommodation, or at home elsewhere and to learn online from either location” from January.

But in a separate letter, Donelan told students they should not leave their term time addresses to visit home before 2 December, as “any movement around the country will risk the lives of our loved ones”.

“I know and appreciate that a number of you may want to be back with your family during this difficult time, but I urge you to stay where you are in order to save lives,” the minister wrote.

She also told students they should speak to their university or make an official complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they are concerned about the academic quality of their education.

Donelan said more guidance for universities on how to operate during lockdown would be published soon.

Meanwhile, in a statement issued on 3 November, Russell Group chief executive Tim Bradshaw said that being on campus “will enable students to benefit from a blend of online and in-person teaching, and have access to wider facilities such as socially distanced study spaces, libraries and other support services”.

“This blended approach is important for both the education and wellbeing of our students,” Bradshaw said. "Universities worked hard to prepare for the new term and where cases have occurred, our members, together with local health authorities, have supported students and staff, and worked with them to reduce transmission.

“As a result of their combined efforts, universities have seen cases fall significantly in recent weeks. There is no room for complacency and we will continue to follow government guidelines, but these are positive signs and reflect the safety of our campuses.”

However, the University and College Union has repeated calls for all teaching to move online only during the pandemic. In a letter to vice-chancellors in England, sent on 3 November, UCU generally secretary Jo Grady said they should “exercise their autonomy and move all non-essential activities online now”.

“Universities must not risk the health and safety of staff and students by allowing non-essential, in-person activities to continue. Reducing the amount of in-person teaching and travel to and from campus will minimise the spread of Covid-19 and keep people as safe as possible,” Grady said.