• Features

A meta-university of Aberdeen

Updated: Mar 8

What do potential pandemic-triggered permanent changes mean for the student experience?

By Jake Roslin

Just like bars and clubs, people who own office buildings, and politicians with careers to save, Aberdeen University and AUSA are now making tentative efforts to get back to “normal”, although plenty caution that it’s still too early to stop distancing or testing. Perhaps campus will eventually buzz again like it did in 2018/19, my first year, halcyon days that I didn’t realise were halcyon at the time. But as every place of higher education now begins to formalise what “going to university” means post-Covid, we see this could be something very different. While it may be spun as fantastic academically, in the detail may be a huge loss for the undergraduate experience, not least socially.

Although the pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to campuses, it could have been even worse. Software, especially for multi-participant video, had fortuitously developed sufficiently, the Blackboard platform was relatively mature, and fast internet was ubiquitous enough to make online learning plausible, at least in less practical disciplines. Had Covid happened twenty, perhaps even ten years ago, teaching would have simply had to stop, perhaps until some sort of nightmarish postal study system was in place.

Universities, especially this one, have been around for a long time, and have naturally developed rather specific ways of doing things. In normal times, a switch to a new form of technology to deliver degrees would take years of think tanks, working groups and inaction. However, as is often the case in the progress of history generally, it is an unrelated, external event that disrupts the status quo and forces people to quickly operate in radically different ways, for better or worse. But vice chancellors and principals everywhere surely now see opportunity from the pandemic beyond the initial disaster management: ways to promote themselves as high tech and cutting edge, although also to save lots of money, not least on staffing and real estate.

The part of the university experience under greatest threat is mass teaching. Rumours abound, including among academics, that the traditional lecture will simply not return but be, generally, delivered using synchronous or more likely asynchronous technology. Teaching buildings worldwide, including some very expensive new builds, are now being assessed in a new light. As recently as May 2019, Aberdeen University began reconfiguring the southern wing of King’s College from smaller to larger teaching spaces, with much-overdue modernisations of lecture rooms in New King’s also on the cards, part of the Aberdeen 2040 strategy. These plans cannot help but be under radical reconsideration. Will the newly opened Science Teaching Hub ever be used exactly as intended? Is the long-mooted Business School in Johnson Hall, planning permission for which was submitted to Aberdeen City Council the very same month the first local lockdown was imposed, to be configured in the expected ways?

While nobody likes a 9 o’clock one, there is much to lose from real life lectures. First, there is the already noticeable use of repeat material. A lecture can be used annually until it is obviously out of date, which in some disciplines may take a very long time. When we pay high tuition fees, this cannot help but bring into question value for money. One institution was even caught using video lectures delivered by a now deceased professor, raising all sorts of ethical issues, not least whether someone should probably have been employed to replace them, academic contracts with any sense of stability being difficult enough to secure as it is. There is also the danger that institutions will close. Some august universities, including Harvard and Oxford, already provide free lecture material online and this will only expand. The obtaining of an actual degree from such institutions using this material will naturally cost money, but then so does coming to Aberdeen. Will we be able to compete in a world market for online degrees? Certainly, it’s not difficult to see some more struggling universities, who perhaps already have student recruitment issues and financial difficulties, simply fading away, and there being radical reductions in breadth of subjects offered by others. I didn’t particularly come to Aberdeen for a degree subject, but because I liked the university campus, and, cold and seagull-infested as it may be, the part of the country. It was only then that I chose my exact discipline, from several possible options. This will not, of course, apply to everyone, but it would be a bad day for student choice if each university simply offered only the subjects that they are currently renowned for.

And it’s not all about the teaching. Universities are microcosmic worlds, and although the campus “bubble” might be criticised as escaping the “real” world, a big attraction to many students is such a closed community environment. For some, this may be a useful step to coping with that real world, for others it may be somewhere they decide to inhabit permanently. This can apply even on campuses which are not as charming as Aberdeen’s, such as those which are collections of urban buildings. The heady, competitive sense of being surrounded by your peers and academics who are leaders in their fields, the intense schedules of campus societies, pub events and being part of the likes of /The Gaudie/, of bumping into your friends randomly, of planning your day around the Rice Cube or the Taylor, and of their being lots of amazing books to accidentally discover there (in a way that online search does not allow).

Aberdeen may not have the biggest student’s union, but societies and sports did thrive until the pandemic came along. However, the constant stream of evening events to go to was only feasible because students were coming onto campus to study anyway. The experience of living in halls for at least a year is a rite of passage for very many, and that of the tribulations of sharing a house another. There’s something quite fun too about having existences in two different places, perhaps a considerable contrast between home town or village and the hedonism of term time, of student pubs and student-night club culture, something else which could be in jeopardy. Going to university is very often about reinvention too. This is difficult within the bounds of a small window of video, especially if, like all of us, you say ‘I can’t get my camera to work, sorry’.

University of the future could theoretically take place in the metaverse. It’s even possible to imagine medical practice and science labs operating in virtual reality with appropriate sensory wear. But such an evolution would lose the thing that makes attending a campus really special: social interaction, for what are humans but social animals. Even if we learn as efficiently or even more so online, our lives would be impaired and our confidence and social skills would disappear through the floor, just as they have over the last two years. The pandemic has suggested new possibilities to universities, but we must resist that its social and rite of passage roles simply came to an end in 2020.

Bishop Elphinstone has seen a lot of students come and go from his vantage point in front of King’s. He must have been wondering where we all went. I don’t think he’d really like having the campus, that has taken half a millennium to evolve, largely to himself. Even if we were meanwhile all still obtaining excellent, but in more than one way virtual, Aberdeen University degrees.