Government backlash over universities’ return to online learning


Universities that have decided to move to online teaching for the start of term, including Durham, have come under fire from education secretary Nadhim Zahawi.

Talking to The Sunday Times, Zahawi said it was his expectation that universities “deliver face-to-face education” as “they are doing it in primary schools and in colleges”.

“I expect universities to do the same thing, otherwise explain why not. These are no excuses, we are all in this together.” 

He went on further to say that “if students feel they are not getting value for money they should take that up with the Office for Students”.

“We have to get back to a world where students are getting value for money and face-to-face education.”

This criticism comes following Durham University’s decision to move almost all of its teaching online for the first week of term and most lectures online for the second in a bid to achieve a “soft start” to the term amid high national Covid-19 infection rates. Temporary changes have also been made to Wider Student Engagement events and the way the library operates.

In an email sent to all students, the University said the new adjustments were because ‘’the health and safety of our students, staff and the wider community remains our priority.”

“We have to get back to a world where students are getting value for money”

Minister for education Nadhim zahawi

“We want to manage our teaching and learning environment as safely as possible, given rising infection rates both locally within North East England and nationally.”

This message was echoed by Durham City MP Mary Kelly Foy, who criticised Zahawi on Twitter, labelling his comments a “bit sensational” and defending the University’s decision to introduce temporary Covid-controls due to the current outbreak of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

Foy said: “They’ve acted to protect staff, students & community, or would you rather they put the health of people in Durham at risk?”

“Would you rather they put the health of people in Durham at risk?”

MP mary kelly foy via twitter

Other universities to move to online teaching this term are Queen’s College Belfast, which has moved most teaching online for at least a month, and Edinburgh University which has moved most large lectures online. 

Durham University is one of the hundred Universities to move to blended learning this academic year, including 23 out of 24 Russell Group Universities. 

In a statement, The Russell Group has said, “At all Russell Group universities students can expect seminars, small group classes and lab work to be taught in-person. An element of digital learning, which was an important feature of university courses pre-pandemic, will continue.” 

“Many students welcome the flexibility and accessibility that keeping some digital learning provides.”

A previous version of this article implied that Nadhim Zahawi criticised Durham University specifically, this has been corrected.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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