Covid-19: Prestigious universities moving online, but can digital learning compensate for campus experience?

With scholarships drying up, travel restricted and new visa rules, the pandemic has jeopardised the dreams of millions of students looking to study abroad. As a way to deal, many prestigious universities have moved their courses online, but can online classes compensate for the campus experience?

Covid-19: Prestigious universities moving online, but can digital learning compensate for campus experience?
Graduates throwing their graduation caps.

By Shriya Roy

Earlier this week, the US’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that international students studying in the country will either have to leave it or face deportation if their universities switch to online-only courses for upcoming academic sessions. The order said new visas won’t be issued to students enrolled at universities that have gone online completely. The move will severely impact thousands of Indian students in the US who would now have to come back home, while those who have already returned won’t be issued visas for going back. However, students who have a combination of in-person and online classes will be allowed to remain as well as re-enter the US. Soon after the directive, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Department of Homeland Security and the federal immigration agency protesting against the new guidelines.

Needless to say, the new directive has come as a sucker punch to the hopes of thousands of Indian students studying in the US currently, and those planning higher education in that country. The US government’s move is the latest in the long list of woes that the pandemic has created for students, jeopardising their dreams and ambitions. Life was already proving difficult enough, as scholarships have dried up and travel is restricted. Take, for instance, the case of a 23-year-old chemistry postgraduate from Kolkata. In March, the student received an offer letter from the UK’s University of Cambridge to pursue her PhD. The session was to begin in September and the student, who didn’t wish to be named, was sure she would get a scholarship and be able to fulfill a long cherished dream. But that was not to be. Last month, she had to reject the offer as she couldn’t manage a scholarship despite having everything in place. The culprit? Covid-19.

Not just students, universities across the world—from Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford to Yale and Leeds—are struggling to manage pending semester examinations, new admissions, lectures, among others. Not surprisingly, many of these universities are now planning to shift to online classes. But the larger question is, can online classes compensate for the campus experience? The question assumes greater significance when one takes into account the fact that many of these students take steep educational loans to pursue higher studies. Furthermore, the spending power of individuals has also gone down with a global recession in place which further complicates things.
A colossal shift is happening in the field of higher education for sure as universities move online, but what does it mean for the millions of students who always dreamt of going abroad for ‘foreign education’?

Paradigm shift

At the forefront of kicking off this major shift is the prestigious University of Cambridge, which will move its entire course online for the 2020-21 academic year, scheduled to begin on October 6. “Given that it is likely that social distancing will continue to be required, the university has decided there will be no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year. Tutors have been told that lectures will be held virtually, including via live streams,” says a Cambridge University spokesperson.

England’s University of Manchester has also cancelled physical classes for the upcoming autumn term and moved them online. “As we anticipate social distancing measures will be in place for some time, we have taken the decision to conduct all lectures for the semester beginning in September online, as a lecture theatre environment does not easily support spatial separation,” says a spokesperson.

Cardiff University in Wales said it would have most of its classes online after the summer break, adding that it might be more than 18 months before the university returns to normal pre-Covid life.

Harvard University and Princeton University have, however, announced plans to bring back students to the campus in the coming semester, but in batches. Harvard plans to bring back about 40% undergraduates, which includes all first-year students, as well as students who need to “progress academically”—the administration admitted that the online class experience, which started after the lockdown was imposed, was far from perfect.

Princeton University, on the other hand, has announced that first- and second-year students will be allowed to return to the campus in the upcoming semester, while third- and final-year students will join from the spring semester next term. The universities will, however, continue to emphasise on online education, with a major part of the academic classes happening online even for those on campus.

Stanford University in California is also going to start its fall session from September 14. The plan is to have a ‘four-quarter’ academic year—half of the students would be on campus for three months, while the rest would attend classes from home. After the completion of the three months, the two groups will trade places. This way, most undergrads would be on campus for two quarters, or six months, in total and learn remotely for the rest of the three months. For students on campus, strict social distancing will be in place. But like Princeton and Harvard, there will still be a lot of thrust on online classes. “We will need to view online as the default teaching option even though in-person classes will be offered. Classes larger than 50 students would likely need to go online,” said a Stanford University spokesperson.

Campus vs virtual

In May, Alice Benton, head of education services, University of Cambridge, told the varsity’s student newspaper that they are working to ensure that the virtual lectures are “of the best possible quality”. They have, however, been clear about not offering any false hopes of a “campus experience”.

Campus life, however, is one of the key attractions for international students. With universities moving to a virtual learning environment, these students will get deprived of the campus experience. Plus, there is also the concern of having to pay the full fee despite only attending online classes. Many think online classes can’t compensate for the campus life experience and would rather apply again next year. Kolkata-based Shinjini Banerjee is one of them. The sociology graduate had applied to several UK universities for higher education, but her plan to study abroad came to a grinding halt. “I had been waiting for the offer letters and they did come. But I wasn’t excited because I knew the classes would be held online even though I would be paying the full tuition fee. It doesn’t make sense at all. It’s not going to be the same as the campus experience… and paying a huge amount to sit in front of the computer is not worth it,” says Banerjee.

Some students are worried that next year too might not bring any succour. “There does not seem to be a solution to this problem in sight. Even as we delay and postpone our current plans to study abroad, what is the surety that things will be all good when we apply next year? There is no guarantee,” says 26-year-old Kartik Parashar, a math graduate from University of Delhi, adding that with stringent travel and visa restrictions in the future, going abroad to study will become even more difficult. “The dreams and aspirations of many have been dealt a huge blow… and it happened when many of us were ready to start our studies abroad. While one can be optimistic, things look really difficult,” the Delhi-based student says.

Even if one does opt for online classes, there are hurdles galore, especially for students in developing countries. While time difference is a major issue, another big problem is internet connectivity. Universities for sure are attempting to make the online experience for students as fulfilling as possible, but poor internet in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh could make things difficult.

The shift to remote learning has also made the socio-economic gap between international and domestic students clearly visible. There’s a lack of engagement when it comes to assignments online. Plus, researchers have pointed out a ‘learning loss’ that students are experiencing under the current circumstances—because of the postponement and cancellation of exams, there has been a major disruption to learning, they say.

For students already enrolled in universities abroad, the present situation poses other problems. When the lockdown was announced, they had to make a choice between staying back or flying home, which would have meant risking career opportunities. A 24-year-old Indian student (who didn’t wish to be named) enrolled at the University of Chicago is among those who chose to stay back. Many like him, the student says, were worried they would lose out on their optional practical training (OPT) if they decided to leave and, hence, chose to stay back.

Under OPT, an international student can stay and work in the US for a year after the completion of their course and can then apply for long-term employment. “I wanted to go back home after the US became the epicentre of the pandemic, but the stakes were too high. The risk of losing my OPT was something I could not take,” the 24-year-old says.

But now with the new restrictions in the US, things are looking more gloomy. “As per the new restrictions, a lot of us will have to leave after having dealt with some harrowing months here. We might not be able to return anytime soon either. There is still a lack of clarity on who is exempted and who isn’t, but it looks like a dead end,” he says.

Even those who do manage to stay back would find it exceptionally hard to land jobs due to lack of campus networking and placements in the current scenario. There is already deep-seated uncertainty looming around jobs, with many places having put in place a hiring freeze.

Money matters

As universities undergo major changes, their financial state is becoming dire. Revenues are dropping to a new low as students, particularly international ones, remain home or rethink future plans. Currently enrolled students could take a leave of absence as well rather than pay full fee for online courses.

Universities in the UK have, in fact, been told to expect a sharp fall in the number of new international students coming next year—a loss of up to 460 million pounds is expected just from students from east Asia. A survey by the British Council has also found that nearly 14,000 fewer students from countries like China, Singapore, Malaysia and India will go to the UK in 2020-21. This amounts to a 12% fall in overall international student numbers. According to British Council’s data, 39% of students from India had already applied to study at universities in the UK, and another 22% planned to apply this year. However, 29% of Indian students who had applied to study overseas are likely to cancel their plans or have already done so.

Higher education is one of the most productive sectors of the UK economy with international students alone bringing in 7.3 billion pounds each year. The sector generates 73 billion pounds every year, as per reports. Today, however, thousands of students in the UK have signed a petition, calling for a refund of their tuition fees in the wake of the suspension of physical classes. What further aggravates the problem is that international students aren’t entitled to student loans in the UK and so end up paying much higher fees.

Understanding the gravity of the situation, these universities are now taking corrective action. While UK’s University of Portsmouth is offering in-part scholarships for Indian students for the first year, University of California has cancelled the requirement for SAT and ACT for admissions next year and has decided to suspend the process entirely by 2025. There are other concessions on offer as well such as admissions on the basis of a provisional degree and accepting English proficiency certificates other than IELTS and TOEFL. Many universities in Australia are also offering heavy fee waivers and monetary support to international students. Some like University of Louisville in the US are arranging virtual visits too.

Also, according to a statement from British Universities’ International Liaison Association, as reported by the British Council, a majority of universities are adjusting their application and deposit payment deadlines to help students deal with delays. Plans are also in place to support students through any quarantine measures they may need to undertake when they join.

Silver lining

With the falling interest in foreign universities, Indian universities are now enjoying renewed interest from students looking for higher education opportunities. According to a recent survey by career counselling firm Mindler, 56% of students who earlier aspired to study abroad are now considering Indian universities. “Indian universities will experience an upsurge in applications. Students, who were previously only applying overseas, will now also apply to several domestic options as their backups,” the report says.

Mumbai-based Srishti Mullick, for one, had applied for a master’s in fine arts at universities in the UK, but changed her plans when things took a turn for the worse across the world. “I knew that for the course that I opted for, an online experience will not serve the purpose in any way. It will only be a waste of money with no actual learning. I, therefore, decided to withdraw from the process and apply to universities in India like Shiv Nadar University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, which can at least guarantee a campus experience,” the 22-year-old says.

Twenty-five-year-old Aarav Sagar, who just completed his master’s in history from University of Delhi, has decided to enroll in an Indian college, even if just for a year. “Knowing that most classes will be held online, I have decided to defer my admission in the US for this year and take admission in India instead, rather than sit at home for a year. Campus experience, be it anywhere, is extremely important. Online learning does not solve the purpose,” says Bhopal-based Sagar.

At a time like this, Indian universities stand to gain a lot. Private universities like Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Ashoka University are, in fact, putting more focus on a global experience and investing more on research facilities to attract students. There is also a greater focus on learning and thinking than just bookish knowledge. Research papers have replaced annual examinations in some of the colleges. “We are seeing evidence in our ongoing admissions process that students are taking up the option of studying here, as they know that we can provide a similar quality of education that students would get abroad at a significantly lower cost,” says a Ashoka University spokesperson, adding that they are also providing financial aid to students who can’t afford higher education.

Shiv Nadar University, too, is investing in research facilities. “It is ultimately a question of high-quality education. India has one of the world’s largest higher education systems, but the quality of education in most institutions falls short of national aspiration levels and global standards,” vice-chancellor Rupamanjari Ghosh said in a statement. “The model of education at Shiv Nadar University is unique. I believe learning should be curiosity-driven and enjoyable. Research has to be an integral part of the pedagogy.”

Central universities such as University of Delhi, Jadavpur University, Hyderabad Central University, etc, have had a traditional way of functioning that has struggled to keep up with new-age demands. But now, the universities are investing in online teaching platforms and tools, developing standard guidelines, planning video interactions, etc. They are also preparing for an influx of students, as many cancel admissions and turn homewards.

Clearly, it’s become very important for universities around the world to be in touch with the changing academic demands of the 21st century. With a combination of online and offline leaning, the old system has to give way to a new way of thinking to help students make the most of the learning experience.

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