The government pretended UK universities were immune to the virus. The fallout is exhausting | Jonathan Wolff


“It must be so interesting teaching with Zoom,” said an elderly relative. “It must relieve the monotony of teaching the same old thing the same old way after all these years.” Hmm, thank you, Auntie.

Universities have rarely been off the front pages lately, and as a general rule, when that happens it’s not going to be good news. Universities, it is solemnly intoned, are the care homes of the second wave of the pandemic. And whatever we do, we can’t win.

Back in May, Oxford announced it was retaining face-to-face tutorials, with improved safety measures, but moving all lectures online, while Cambridge announced what looked rather like the same policy in a different order: it was moving lectures online while probably retaining face-to-face tutorials where safe. With readers capable only of reading the first half of the statements, Oxford was praised for its bravery by some and criticised for its appalling recklessness by others, while Cambridge was simultaneously applauded for its prudence and attacked for its cowardice.

The government has encouraged universities to pretend they were magically immune to the virus, as long as they collectively washed their hands and exited the classroom only stage right. Each university has been left to struggle to work out how to do its best for students. In practice this has led to the attempt to provide high-quality online materials, with some face-to-face experience.

There has been far less attention to what this means for teachers and other support staff. In many universities, face-to-face teaching is still strongly encouraged, but in far smaller groups than before. Where there was one class, now there are up to four, repeating the same content. At the same time, many lectures have been replaced with pre-recorded versions, which with retakes, technical glitches, and correcting auto-captions, can take the lecturer half a day or more for what was a one-hour lecture.

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Some courses are run wholly online, which is turning out to be better than most expected, but a few intense sessions in a row can give teachers Metallica ears, Bridget Riley eyes, and a Teletubby brain. The “hybrid” classroom – some students in the room and rest online – leaves teachers as drained as a smartphone running the test-and-trace app, and on top of that they have had to make themselves more available than normal for one-to-one meetings with students.

Every one of these changes puts more demands on teaching staff, and nothing, except commuting time for some, has been taken away. This is against a background of recruitment freezes, termination of teachers on short-term contracts, and an apparent rush, over the summer, for early retirement. Academics can’t call for reinforcements – there is no one else on the payroll. Colleagues up and down the UK are reporting physical exhaustion just a few weeks into term.

It is no surprise that some lecturers feel deep emotional anxiety about the risks they and their students face. After all, university teachers in the classroom are at the pinch point of having to manage protests about not enough face-to-face teaching, with complaints about subjecting students (and the surrounding community) to unnecessary risk, while taking a significant personal risk themselves. It is not easy for anyone, but the pressure falls unevenly, with lecturers under intense strain.

What next? As the country jumps the tiers to crashland into lockdown/not lockdown, the trend towards online delivery can only increase. On many campuses the mood is one of “not if, but when” for fully online provision. As the winter takes hold, the attraction for students of learning via a laptop under a duvet could become irresistible.

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But lo, the first announcements from universities about how they will arrange teaching after Christmas are poking up their heads, like shy little snowdrops. It seems the future of this academic year is expected to resemble the past. Fair enough. But let’s hope around the UK we settle into teaching styles that are less physically and emotionally draining for everyone. And no, a few sessions of compulsory online training are not the solution.



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