In late July 2021, when my university released an email stating that contrary to clear government guidance they were going to be sticking with online lectures, my heart sank.
I was set to receive just 6 hours of on-campus teaching a week, something that after practically a full academic year in lockdown, did not fill me with excitement.
The message in the press from further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan has been clear, relentless and consistent since early on in the pandemic – use the university complaints system, and take it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if you’re still unhappy.
STUDENT MESSAGE 3: If students think they aren’t getting quality, quantity & accessibility they should raise their concerns with their Uni via the complaints process. If unresolved, they can go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) https://t.co/xXZqBNwtpG
— Michelle Donelan MP (@michelledonelan) January 15, 2021
But when we submitted a 20-strong group complaint all the way to the OIAHE (the students complaints adjudicator body), it was rejected on the basis that the university’s promises on delivery had been vague, there was wriggle room in government guidance and we’d been warned over the summer – although not in a way that would have reasonably allowed any student to actually switch university.
The truth is that the complaints regime that further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan has continually advocated as the way of getting redress doesn’t work, and the assertions that students have rights are seemingly impossible to enforce.
It means that students need to pursue alternative routes to get the education they were promised and need – and I’d therefore urge students to show the government that it needs to get to grips with this situation before it becomes too late.
We simply cannot let predominantly online learning become normalised.
Sum of the parts
The feeling of disassociation and mundanity that online learning entails creates an absence of what I believe to be the most important part of a university education – progression from a teenage student to a young professional.
Some would argue that thinking of university in this way is odd, but higher education is about more than the individual learning outcomes from individual modules. The reality is that the social interactions you engage in around campus help you to find your place in the world.
You are constantly learning what you both like and dislike not only in other people’s behaviour but in your own. This is a vital learning curve for students – who without it would be thrust into the working world without the social maturity to feel comfortable working around other professionals.
Online learning is devoid of this vital component, feeling more like a collection of recorded TED talks than an all-encompassing education, something that crossed my mind as I recently agreed to fork out another £9250 for my third academic year.
What students want
With complaints going nowhere, we knew that campaigning was the only option.
But for the campaign to combat a slide towards online learning, we knew that we had to show that a majority of students felt the same way.
The constant argument of the university has been that students actually quite liked online learning, and that’s true for some, given the ease of being able to watch lectures from the comfort of a bed at irregular hours.
In reality the debate has never been about whether there should be any online aspects to higher education – of course there should. The argument – obscured by the press, several surveys and by universities themselves – has always been about whether there is less in-person contact than there was pre-pandemic.
And that’s not to say that all in-person contact pre-pandemic was perfect. But replacing an imperfect in-person lecture with a video recording, or a poorly run seminar with an online version that has low engagement doesn’t make any of that better – just cheaper.
So we knew we needed to show students what they were missing out on, and then find a way of registering their dissatisfaction.
To do this we utilised Instagram to gain a large following of KCL students. This allowed us to spread our messages with ease, messages of warning, messages of sympathy, and eventually personal messages from students in the form of testimonials.
After just a few weeks, it became clear to us that there was considerable support for this cause, motivating us to take the next step and organise a university-wide poll.
A huge response
With the help of the KCL students’ union, who have supported us continually, we organised a poll that was sent to all students. It had a simple question: How would you like your teaching at KCL to be offered? Online or In-person.
The response rate was the largest the SU has ever seen, with almost 2000 students voting in the space of 48 hours. 75% of those who chose not to abstain supported a return to in-person teaching.
This was, as far as I know, the first only truly democratic poll of its kind nationwide and was the perfect evidence to present to KCL in our continued discussions.
So after many months of campaigning, debating, networking, and student-polling, we have finally reached the result we were after. The university has announced to all students that whilst online teaching will not be abandoned, it will only ever be used to complement the same level of in-person contact time as was seen pre-pandemic – a victory for our campaign.
I would implore any students who are similarly dissatisfied with the teaching they are receiving to take a stand.
Spread your message using the digital tools you have at your disposal, show students what they are missing out on, convince them to rally behind your cause, and then use their support as evidence to stiff-arm your university heads into submission.
It is remarkable what students can achieve when they swim in the same direction – and important that they do.