Ben HaywardJune 8th
2020

Students are being told that the coronavirus pandemic ‘isn’t a good enough reason’ to defer their degrees by some universities.

A number of different institutions across the UK have responded to students’ requests to pause their studies because of uncertainty around Covid-19 by saying it’s not a ‘valid reason’.

The Guardian has spoken to a number of students who’ve confirmed that their universities have refused to let them take a break from their degrees despite the huge impact of the pandemic restrictions own the delivery of their courses.

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One of those the Guardian spoke to is Freya Saddler, a first-year musical theatre student, at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Despite trying to adapt to studying drama alone on a laptop in her bedroom Freya says she is stressed and unhappy and needs a break from her studies.

She said: “Emotionally it has been a big struggle. 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.”

However, when she consulted with tutors about deferring her second year, Freya was told it would be ‘a pointless fight’.

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She told the Guardian: “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. It made me feel like I was a number.”

Universities are facing a huge shortfall in income after a survey carried out by the British council revealed that as many as 14,000 international students from east Asia alone are unlikely to come to the UK this year. 

This, coupled with the fact that huge amounts of school leavers are reconsidering whether to start university this year, means universities are facing substantial financial losses.  

Goldsmiths says it has not issued a blanket ban on deferrals, with a spokesperson saying: “We understand students will have specific questions or concerns about individual courses and we will answer these as soon as possible.”

The University of the Arts London, a specialist in 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.” 

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The University of Hertfordshire states: “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.”

A third-year sculpture student at the Glasgow School of Art who also spoke to the Guardian, says tutors have told her she can only defer if she has a serious medical condition. 

“I don’t feel I have any control,” she says. “I feel very anxious and I’m really down. We’re told there will be online learning next year, but how do you do sculpture online? We’re paying and we need a proper degree. This isn’t what we signed up for.”

A spokeswoman for Glasgow School of Arts says it is developing creative approaches to delivering its teaching so students can carry on with their studies.

Former academic, Michelle Morgan, who advises universities on the student experience, says making students feel trapped won’t help the situation.

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“If you offer choices, students will feel more in control and they are more likely to decide to stay,” she told the Guardian. "Kindness and humanity work much better. 

“If a student is blocked from deferring it could exacerbate the state of their mental health and possibly prevent them completing their course.”

However, other universities have adopted a more flexible approach. 

Sheffield University says it will consider coronavirus a reason for time out, although the university’s vice-president for education, Professor Wyn Morgan, says he hopes the university can offer students who may be struggling the extra support they need instead of a deferral. 

Prof Morgan said: “If you’re having trouble, talk to us. 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.”

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