Importance of universities
Science and higher education are some of the UK’s strong points. Higher education earned the UK £10.71 billion in exports and, according to the Nature Index, the UK ranks fourth worldwide in terms of research output.
This country has produced some of the greatest scientific minds in history, from Charles Darwin to Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking and many other researchers across the nation doing so much pioneering work.
British universities are among the best globally, with Oxford ranked 1st place by the Times Higher Education ranking. The same report also shows that the UK is a popular destination for international students, a valuable source of income for the country (£25 billion) and furthers the UK’s soft power.
The impact of lockdowns on students
Though lockdowns certainly did help to slow the spread of the virus, preventing the critical care facilities in the NHS from becoming overwhelmed and saved lives, we must also consider the negative impacts of lockdowns. For example, the mental health of 73% of students declined during the lockdowns – more than any other demographic.
Science degrees, in particular, need practical laboratory and field sessions. My undergraduate course in palaeontology at the University of Portsmouth was mainly lab-based, with at least three or four practicals per week and regular fieldwork. This hands-on approach to science (and also in the humanities) is fundamental as it helps students apply their theoretical knowledge in real-world situations and helps with motivation.
If universities do not return to normality in the coming academic year, we risk third-year students spending only a single term of their degrees on campus. That is potentially only around 1/6th of their higher education. This will inevitably negatively impact mental health and academic performance (distance learning is not as effective as in-person learning) and hurt future employment prospects.
After all, employers would instead hire none-lockdown graduates with extensive on-campus laboratory experience over a graduate who only has theoretical knowledge.
Vaccinations are key
It is easy to criticise the government’s response to Covid; after all, we have one of the highest death rates globally and had more deaths than the whole of Europe combined in June 2021, but it is successful in the vaccination program.
However, hesitancy around the vaccine amongst 16-29-year-olds is the highest of any age group, with some 13 per cent unsure about whether they want the vaccine. The reasons for this are complicated, and every person would have a different reason to be sceptical. Perhaps the most important factor is the media’s focus on the elderly, which, according to Professor Ivo Vlaev: “Young people have been getting the message that they’re not important when it comes to the virus … So there’s been a complacent attitude to the vaccine among some.”
Vaccinations will help get things back to normal, but you still need roughly 70% to 85% of the population to be vaccinated to reach the threshold for herd immunity. 21.3 per cent of the UK population are younger than 18 (an age group that is unlikely to be offered the vaccine), so to achieve the herd immunity threshold, almost every adult needs to be vaccinated for Covid.
If you want things to get back to normal and put Covid behind you, it is essential to get the vaccine so you can move on with your own life and protect others, especially those who are immunocompromised.
What could universities do?
It should be clear that universities need to reopen properly in September for the sake of education quality and the mental health of young people. However, precautions need to be taken. Although the average student is not at risk of dying of Covid, the same is not true for senior staff, and long Covid should still be of concern.
Universities should encourage all students and staff to be fully vaccinated before attending university. There have been several articles about compulsory vaccinations and how they are discriminatory to international students and those who have not yet been offered the vaccine.
According to Dr Ben Kasstan: “we have seen stigmatising language being used which blames young people for not ‘doing the right thing”. The government needs to stop being so hostile towards young people.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said:
“sadly, this looks and smells like a prime minister trying to pin the blame on students for not yet taking up a vaccine they haven’t been prioritised to receive” and the government should “able and sensitively encourage student vaccination”.
One possible way to encourage vaccinations is to have vaccine tents at Freshers Fairs. There could also be incentives for being vaccinated like free alcohol, food, coupons, pens or VIP access to nightclubs if you decide to get jabbed or show evidence that you have been vaccinated. Vaccine centres at university events at the start of the term would also mean that international students who may not have been offered the vaccine in their home countries could receive the jab as well.
Regular Covid testing for all staff and students should also be provided to monitor the spread of the virus.
Suppose universities are not allowed to reopen fully. The government runs the risk of further alienating a demographic that already despises everything Boris and his cronies stand for, further damage to mental health, and future damage to the scientific sector as future graduates may not have the necessary practical skills to find future employment in their chosen field.
One idea to help resolve the issues arising from a lack of lab experience could be introducing free intensive lab practical courses to recent graduates to help get them to the same standards as their pre-Covid peers.
The government’s unwarranted criticism of students (it can also be argued that the restrictions on our right to protest are also aimed primarily at more liberally minded students) should not be a surprise. After all, university graduates tend to be more pro-European, are less likely to vote Conservative, and universities have long been associated with social change from the Vietnam War Protests to the White Rose Movement.
Distance learning works well for short courses, but university is far more than just learning. It is culture and a sense of community that leads to lifelong friendships and intellectual discovery that can not be replicated digitally. Though some online lectures and tutorials can continue at the discretion of individual lecturers and video uploads of in-person lectures on Moodle would benefit students, distance learning will not replace hands-on laboratory experience and human contact.