University Students Face Uncertainties

As Europe’s summer season begins, the traditional end of the year’s academic season has been replaced by questions and concerns as to how the next one can begin

Graduation for final year university students have, in many cases, either been fast-tracked or postponed – leading to considerable periods of stress and strain for those seeking to start their careers or the next phase of their studies.

With no physical classes conducted since early March in most parts of Europe, institutions are grappling with ways to restructure the ending – and upcoming – academic year, as well as how to award grades to students in a way that is fair and realistic, while taking the strains of the pandemic into account.

Many students are in favour of their institution following a “no detriment” policy, which means that last assessment grades would hold and could only be revised upward by any exams or projects graded remotely. Marks could not be graded downwards since universities themselves have been closed. Numerous institutions have opted to follow this policy, or at least a version of it. Others have presented alternatives, such as the deferment of exams or an opportunity to retake tests or modules that students may have previously passed or failed in an effort to up their scores.

Dangers of Digital Divide for Students

After months of being gripped by this deadly pandemic, there are signs that the worst of Europe’s COVID-19 wave may be passing. Nations are tentatively beginning to reveal plans as to how they might restart society and open again for business, tourism, and education.

However, most universities are not expected to open their doors again until September 2020. Over recent years, many higher education institutions have invested heavily in remote learning. And the ability to continue delivering educational services to students may mean universities are, to some extent, a victim of their own success, with EU governments being unlikely to prioritise kick starting face-to-face instruction.

Yet the damage caused to students over the course of this pandemic has been severe. While institutions may be able to provide remote learning, whether students are able to access these resources varies significantly. Of particular concern is how campus closures has affected less privileged students and those without access to technology, a space to study, or those who struggle due to little or no interaction with lecturers, teachers, and peers.

Primary Schools Take Priority in France

In France, like in Germany, elementary schools are being deemed a priority over universities – set to restart in September at the earliest – as administrators fear that quarantining children will exacerbate educational inequalities at an early age, something hard to remedy.

“Too many children, especially those in working class neighbourhoods and in our countryside, are deprived of schooling without having access to digital technology and cannot be helped by their parents in the same way,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who is eyeing a phased reopening of schools and nursery schools from mid-May, dependent on if the country’s virus situation continues to improve.

Most EU universities shut down campuses by March 5 and took their academic offerings online. But for many students and educators, online learning simply can’t replace in-person lectures. “Teaching should be face-to-face. I don’t know the reaction of the students (online). How can I grasp if students understand what I’m saying? I can’t see the faces, the eyes,” said Piero Ignazi, a professor of political science at the University of Bologna. Copyright:  GaudiLab /

Italian Universities Look to Autumn

In Italy, the first European nation to be ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, most universities have been completely shut down since March 5. A return date is currently still very uncertain, with September being the most likely scenario. “The university community is quite silent,” said Piero Ignazi, professor of political science at the University of Bologna.

“As far as I know, the large majority of universities have introduced online learning systems and it’s working quite well,” Ignazi commented, while adding that functional, virtual learning simply cannot replicate the value or impact of the lecture room. “Teaching should be face-to-face. I don’t know the reaction of the students (online). How can I grasp if students understand what I’m saying? I can’t see the faces, the eyes,” he said.

Spain Plans Region-Based Reopening

In Spain, the socialist-led government of President Pedro Sanchez has avoided pinning various phases of the reopening of the country to particular dates. For those involved in the academic sector, as lecturers or as students, normality is still months away. Even still, there are signs that both the education ministry and universities want to see learning resume during summer months, depending on the state of each region.

If the situation in relation to the pandemic continues to improve, a phased reopening from early June with the academic year extended to July is possible, with students then having to sit exams or complete project or laboratory work in September. This could mean an overlap of the academic year, or a delay to the new term. Nekane Balluerka, of the University of the Basque Country, said that “the main thing is to make sure (that) students who are due to graduate this year finish on schedule and with all the legal guarantees.”

In Madrid, the region hardest hit by the pandemic, universities will not open again before the autumn season. But students who have laboratory work or internships to complete will be able to access some university facilities during the summer months, depending on approval from health authorities. In Catalonia, which has also suffered greatly from COVID-19, there is no fixed date yet for a return to lectures for students.

For those involved in research work, the length of their projects will likely exceed the span of the lockdown. Lluis Sola of the Institute of Chemical Research in Barcelona is optimistic for research students, saying “if the lockdown doesn’t last much longer, researchers shouldn’t be affected. In general, the deadlines for projects are long enough to brave this time.” Sola added that the education ministry may even choose to legislate on the matter and postpone project deadlines between three and six months.

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Ruairi Kavanagh

Ruairi is an Irish writer, editor and author with 25 years of experience across national and specialist media. He specialises in reporting on matters relating to education, development,emergency services, international affairs, defence and security with particular interest in European affairs, the Balkan region, the Middle East and Africa.

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