University students are returning to (mostly virtual) class at a time of tumult and disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has hit Australian universities hard, with a slew of academic institutions recently announcing severe job cuts – among them the University of Sydney, RMIT University, the University of Melbourne, and the University of New South Wales.
The staff cuts, coupled with distant learning, have dramatically altered the university experience for tens of thousands of Australian students.
Unions and academics have sounded the alarm that this could lead to degrees of lower quality. Enrolments for next year are set to balloon, which could result in a challenging environment of more students and fewer teachers.
Guardian Australia spoke to several students – some at universities that have announced staff cuts, others learning under lockdown – about their experiences during the pandemic.
University of Sydney, bachelor of arts and bachelor of advanced studies.
“I started [at the University of Sydney] in 2014 and I was there until 2018. I am currently working and coming back to uni. Heaps has changed.
“Everything is online except one of my tutorials. The lectures are all online. It was a really different experience from being in a huge lecture hall. I wasn’t able to live up to the reputation of a mature age student and ask questions in the middle of a lecture. [Now] it’s all recorded and when the lecturer is talking kind of slowly, and it’s a topic you already know – you can speed it up. That made a 50 minute lecture segment only take 30 minutes.
“The in-person tutorial is really interesting. I rocked up and there were three people with face masks all talking, and I thought: ‘Oh, I better get my mask on too’. Everyone just seemed to be really excited to be back in person.
“The induction was bizarre. I was just in my bed with my laptop on Zoom. At one point there were 200 people zooming in. Someone was zooming in from hotel quarantine, someone from Singapore. It has become more accessible for people who want to study online.
“I am very against the cuts because the quality of learning will be affected. In one of my courses, I found it interesting that there are only two or three tutors, but I know that previously the course had about nine tutors.
“I remember hearing about the course cuts and thinking, my God, this will change my degree progression, and quickly logging on to see if it was still going to be there. It’s so worrying and it’s just uncertain. We are already in uncertain times, as everyone keeps saying, and it’s just so much worse. My degree is four years full-time, and I will be doing it part-time. That gives the Liberal government, if they stay in power, a very long time to screw with me.”
RMIT, bachelor of science (biotechnology)
“I’m studying biotechnology in a bachelor of science, majoring in molecular biology. [Semester one] was difficult. Instead of attending practicals, some lecturers would just send over the results and expect us to write up the report as normal.
“Attending lectures, reading textbooks and writing notes are all very important but actually putting the skills into practice was one of the best ways I was able to learn. For science students, it is really important to get the hands on experience using the tools, and with this whole lockdown, I don’t feel like we’re getting the chance to use it.
“Being able to use a wide variety of proteomic instruments was important. I felt like that’s why I chose the course. I chose biotechnology to experience how to operate with a variety of biotech instruments and tools. For one of the courses, without practicals, I wasn’t able to use a spectrophotometer, which I don’t think I can expect to get my hands on anywhere else.
“The quality of teaching is still very high [but] I am not able to experience the same work. I am not able to gather my own results or understand the methodology.
“I say this because I have had experience prior, because I have been at uni for three years. I reckon, if this wasn’t my last semester I would probably go part-time, and do two instead of four, so I wouldn’t miss out.
“For one course they tried to work around it. Instead of not doing any pracs, we had two days at the end of the semester where we just went in and did two practicals. It’s all been postponed. I only got the results yesterday, I was supposed to graduate in July and everything has been pushed back. I am not sure if that was because there was a cut in the amount of markers.
“Last semester was my final semester. For sure [I worry for other students still continuing]. I don’t feel like they are getting the full experience. I only say this for science students because we are expected to go in for lab work. They are not able to use the tools, their quality of learning has definitely dropped. And they’re still expected to pay to full price.”
University of NSW, masters in international relations
“I’ve been at uni since 2015. [Due to trimesters] we’re on break at the moment.
“It wasn’t too much of a hassle for me to move onto online learning, mainly because I enjoyed the fact I didn’t have to travel for an hour to uni.
“One of the most difficult parts was that having group discussions felt very awkward. When you couldn’t actually see the person’s face – people didn’t want to have to turn their cameras on during Zoom calls – you kind of just felt disconnected. For my biggest classes, we would have 40 people in one session and only three people would have their cameras on.
“You could ask questions, but because of the delay and not knowing who is going to ask a question, it feels rude to just butt in.
“I personally don’t have any negative things to say about [online learning]. I wanted to have all my classes online. [But] I have a generally lighter course load than other students and I don’t have classes that would require face-to-face learning or the use of facilities like science labs.
“I did attend a town hall meeting for the arts and social sciences students, and there were a lot of people bringing up concerns of staff cuts but didn’t know who exactly was being cut.
“Everyone’s uni experience is so different, it’s a lot of higher-ups at the uni who just put a blanket solution to the entire student body. They do try to accommodate the students, but they don’t necessarily listen to what students are asking for. At the end of the day, it’s about their bottom line. Before trimesters were implemented nearly all of the student body were protesting it. They still did it anyway.”
University of Melbourne, masters of journalism
“Compared to first semester, there is a little bit more experience on the part of the tutors and instructors on how to conduct an online class. In the first semester, we had a couple of weeks in person, then it switched very quickly to online. This semester, I think the Victorian lockdown was announced the Sunday before the semester started. For the most part, people had mental preparation.
“I am doing two classes at the moment – video journalism and international business journalism. With video, it’s usually a class where you learn about the equipment and you get to use it at uni, but obviously we didn’t really get to go in and borrow any equipment. So I’m a little bit peeved at that.
“I think for international business journalism, it’s primarily focused on print, it’s not that different. I think [I’m still having a good experience]. But the fact that I don’t get to use equipment – it is a big difference. But I don’t blame the tutors or anything.
“Last semester, I took audio journalism and that was also supposed to be in-person and a three hour tutorial. When it moved online, it became a 45 minute Zoom call. There were a lot of pre-recorded presentations you had to watch, but the actual session of interacting with the tutor was shortened by a lot.
“I am coming to the end of my degree, so I’m not worried [about future degree quality] so much for myself, but for other people. For undergrads, they tend to rely more on casual tutors. Those cuts have been happening over the last couple of years. It’s not really surprising, but it is disappointing. The thing about Covid as well is that there haven’t been fee reductions, which is disappointing as we’re not able to go to class and use equipment. You would think that is what you are paying for.”