Going to uni in a pandemic: “It’s just been a nightmare for everyone” – Hack | #government | #hacking | #cyberattack

Online group projects and three-hour zoom lectures are just some of the challenges uni students have faced since the pandemic hit.

Almost two years after most face to face learning was scrapped across the country, students have told Hack they’re struggling and keen to get back to campus.

But it hasn’t been all bad for everyone.

Students with disabilities have enjoyed greater access to classes in some cases and some subjects have become cheaper.

And it’s not just students who have been affected – the whole business model of universities has had to quickly evolve with at least 17,000 people losing their jobs in the sector so far.

Experts have warned the massive job losses – which have been mostly women and mostly casual workers – could have long lasting impacts on the quality of education in Australia.

The shift to online learning

Swinburne University biotechnology and sociology student Georgie has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

It’s a really rare hereditary disorder that affects her collagen and on bad days, going to campus is impossible.

“I might have a lot of dislocations and I can’t actually get out of bed because I’m too sore,” the 22-year-old told Hack.

Like heaps of students with disabilities, Georgie’s been “jumping up and down” for access to online lectures and tutorials since well before COVID-19.

“We kept getting told ‘no, it’s too hard, we can’t do that, it’s more resources’ and then they were able to do it within a week,” she said.

While the Melbourne student’s happy that the pandemic has proven online classes can work – and she wants it to stay with some improvements like closed captions on all materials – she’s also desperate to get back to campus.

“It’s become a very real fact that I probably will finish this degree without spending a lot of time on campus which is scary,” she said.

And the worst part?

“Group assignments are really bad at the moment,” she said.

“It’s been very difficult just because it’s online.

“I feel like that’s shared with everyone though – that’s not disability specific. It’s just been a nightmare for everyone.”

Some good, some bad

Students right around the country have been affected by the changes – all in slightly different ways depending on where and what they’re studying.

For University of Melbourne architecture student Sam, making friends has been hard.

His course has been a bit cheaper because he hasn’t been expected to physically make models or print projects.

“But you do lose something about the tactile feeling of holding something or making something sitting in the classroom discussing something real,” he said.

Dmitri did two years of his degree pre-pandemic and has really noticed the difference.

“Being at home there’s a lot of distractions and what not, so my grades definitely took a dip,” he said.

Fellow Adelaide University student Ravin has been looking on the bright side.

“You get a lot of free time,” he said.

“There’s no travelling because you start studying from home.”

What will COVID’s lasting impact on unis be?

The university sector has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 – with the loss of most international students and the rapid shift to online learning.

It’s also been one of the worst protected by the federal government, according to the Australia Institute chief economist Dr Richard Denniss.

“Our universities have been particularly hard hit by the economic shocks associated with coronavirus and they’ve been uniquely poorly supported by government policy,” he told Hack.

Dr Denniss said the decision by the government not to extend the JobKeeper wage subsidy to the unis and tens of thousands of job losses could be felt for a decade.

“The universities are using the COVID crisis to increase the reliance on casuals,” he said.

“If Australia wants to create a long term research culture, you’d think we’d be offering secure work to our best researchers, not more insecure work.”

He’s also worried about unis relying on online learning into next year.

“If we’re going to tell students that this can all be done online, there’s no need to come onto campus, then why would foreign students choose an Australian university?” he said.

“Why wouldn’t students just do online courses from Harvard or Cambridge?

“The last thing we want to have is a brain drain.”

Fee changes

During the pandemic the federal government also changed the cost of some degrees.

They increased the price of humanities like arts, law, economics and communications degrees and brought down the cost of science, engineering, nursing, health, teaching and maths degrees.

Then-education minister Dan Tehan said the changes would produce “job ready” graduates by making it more attractive for students to study up for industries where the government predicted there would be need in the future.

But economist Dr Denniss said that was simplistic.

“The reality is the track record of economists and governments and universities to predict what the jobs of the future are going to be is appallingly bad,” he said.

“I’d always caution a student to be very careful of doing a four year degree to prepare them for their first job, because I guarantee their third or fourth job will probably be quite different.”

Unis and vaccines

A handful of Australian universities including Deakin and Monash in Melbourne have already mandated two doses of the COVID vaccine for anyone heading back to campus at the end of the year.

University of Western Australia vaccine mandate specialist Dr Katie Attwell’s warned any mandates need to be backed up by on site vax centres.

“You would want a scenario whereby somebody who had a 10 o’clock lecture could safely turn up on campus at 8.30, and drop in and get vaccinated without actually having to make an appointment,” she said.

“We want a very simple red light, green light way of understanding somebody’s vaccination status, so that they can participate in university life.”

With so many jobs already lost during the pandemic, Dr Attwell’s also worried already stretched staff could be forced to check students’ vaccination statuses.

“Given the perilous state of the higher education sector, we definitely don’t want to see any of that administrative burden placed on frontline workers in the university sector,” she said.

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