reya Saddler, a first-year musical theatre student, fell in love with Goldsmiths, University of London, when she auditioned for her course. Now, after trying to adapt to studying drama alone on a laptop in her bedroom during lockdown, she is stressed and unhappy. Like many students across the country, she is ready for a break from her studies – but her university says the coronavirus is not a valid reason to defer.
“Emotionally it has been a big struggle,” says Saddler, from Saltash, Cornwall. “Until Covid-19 I was having the best time at university. But suddenly switching online has been extremely hard. Musical theatre is a very practical subject, and I have really struggled at home alone as so much of my subject requires group work.”
With little idea of what lay ahead for her second year, and with at least some online learning looking inevitable, Saddler talked to tutors about deferring her second year. She was told applying for deferral would be “a pointless fight”.
“They said the university doesn’t accept Covid-19 as a valid reason to defer, and that if first years were to defer, the class numbers would be too large the next year,” she says. “It made me feel like I was a number.”
Universities are facing a financial black hole, with some expecting to lose 80-100% of their lucrative international students in the wake of the pandemic. And with institutions admitting they can’t yet be certain what courses and campuses will look like come September, new survey data suggests one in five school leavers might also decide to put off starting university this year.
In ordinary times students, who pay up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees (more if they are from overseas), have the option to take a year or more out of their course if they need to. But some universities are now blocking all attempts by those who want to interrupt their studies because of the virus, unless they can show a serious medical reason for doing so.
Goldsmiths says it has not issued a blanket ban on deferrals and is considering requests individually. “We understand students will have specific questions or concerns about individual courses and we will answer these as soon as possible,” a spokesperson says.
The University of the Arts London, which specialises in hands-on courses such as fashion, art and design, has issued a statement to current students on its website saying: “You cannot defer your studies because of the coronavirus outbreak.” And the University of Hertfordshire website also says no to deferrals for existing students, adding: “We do not anticipate the need for any students to defer their courses as a result of changes to the university’s delivery of teaching.”
Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, fears these sorts of blanket bans will hit the poorest students hardest. “Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be particularly vulnerable during the Covid-19 crisis: more likely to lose part-time jobs they need to make their way, and also to suffer disruption in their home lives given that many parents may have been furloughed, or lost their jobs,” he says.
Many universities are going out of their way to provide extra pastoral and financial support for these students, he says, but for some whose wellbeing is being badly affected by the crisis, deferring a year may be the best option.
Eve Alcock, president of the Bath University students’ union, agrees the students who are finding it hardest to cope right now are “overwhelmingly” from under-represented groups or poorer backgrounds. She argues that students have been accommodating about putting up with “make-do” arrangements for finishing this year online, but “choosing to buy that experience for a full year” is a very different thing.
Bath is assessing student requests to suspend their studies on a case-by-case basis. But Alcock says: “I think it’s outrageous that students have been able to defer for any number of reasons in previous years but now, when there is a global pandemic that affects every inch of our lives, some universities are taking that option away.”
One third-year sculpture student at the Glasgow School of Art says she has serious doubts about her final year next year, particularly because she doesn’t know if the all-important end-of-year show will happen. Tutors have told her she can only defer if she had a serious medical condition. “I don’t feel I have any control,” she says. “I feel very anxious and I’m really down.”
Unlike many students, she has yet to experience online learning. When GSA sent students home, she and her classmates were simply told they had automatically passed the year and it would finish early. “We’re told there will be online learning next year, but how do you do sculpture online?” she asks.
She says students do understand that universities need their tuition fees to survive. “But we are paying and we need a proper degree. This isn’t what we signed up for.”
Luke Hassan, a master’s student in event, festival and exhibition management at Birmingham City University, has had a similar experience. “I have been getting very stressed-out studying on my own at home. I hoped I could defer my last semester, which is about to start, until September, when it will be hopefully easier to use the facilities at university. But they are saying I won’t be allowed.”
A spokesman for the university says: “Any student can ask to temporarily withdraw and return to complete the same semester the following year, but we do not recommend this as it delays graduating by a year.”
Michelle Morgan, a former academic who now advises universities on the student experience, says making students feel trapped is the worst thing universities can do. “If you offer choices, students will feel more in control and they are more likely to decide to stay. Kindness and humanity work much better.”
She adds: “The traumas and challenges students may experience as a result of Covid-19 could be far-reaching. If a student is blocked from deferring it could exacerbate the state of their mental health and possibly prevent them completing their course.”
By contrast, Sheffield University says on its website that it will consider coronavirus a reason for time out. However, Prof Wyn Morgan, the university’s vice-president for education, hopes the university can offer struggling students extra support so they don’t feel the need to defer.
“We’ve said if you’re having trouble, talk to us,” he says. “We might not be able to nail every concern, but we can provide reassurance. We want to show students that we aren’t rigid in the way we do things. I think a blanket approach in these uncertain times can feel a little blunt.”
A spokeswoman for Glasgow School of Arts says the institution is developing creative approaches to delivering its teaching so that students can carry on with their studies.