Workers are back at the office, so why aren’t students back at uni?

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In my university years, the 8am lectures on Friday mornings in winter were the most miserable. None in attendance wanted to be there and our lecturer Anthony Delano – a pompous, successful former newspaper editor and foreign correspondent – knew it.

Delano, who had covered wars, royal tours and the assassination of American president John F. Kennedy, made us attend by taking a roll call. If we didn’t show up to those lectures, where he’d impart his knowledge on what it would take to turn us into journalists, we’d lose a chunk of marks. Those marks could mean the difference between passing or failing his subject.

Being on campus is a crucial part of the university experience.Credit:

I’m grateful that Delano used a stick approach to get us to attend his lectures, where we did indeed learn, even while sitting with our heads propped up on our hands, stifling yawns, sometimes with a hangover. Most of us had come from different towns and cities and bonded over those dreaded early lectures to become lifelong friends.

The trip down memory lane was prompted by a friend telling me about her daughter’s post-pandemic university experience. This friend’s daughter – call her Jo – enrolled in a science degree in 2022, at a capital city university, only to find out later that many of her lectures and tutorials were online.

It wasn’t the uni experience Jo craved after completing part of year 12 remotely through the pandemic. Jo had a tight circle of school friends, but wanted to meet others at uni who were studying her course. She wanted to hang out at uni cafes, go to the uni bar for happy hour, see a band or stand-up comedy act that was visiting the campus, and enjoy the many ecosystems of uni life. And there are many: sports events and teams, debating groups, student politics, protests, festivals, expert talks, or just hanging out on the grass in the university quadrangle.

The pandemic accelerated the remote learning trend, creating a landscape of expensive empty university lecture halls and scattered students and teachersCredit: iStock

And of course, being at university physically – rather than virtually – fosters creativity and debate, not to mention that it increases the chance of meeting someone you might want to date. Just ask University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott: that’s where he met his wife.

For Jo, the social experience was limited at her university. Mostly it was via her laptop in her bedroom because even though the pandemic was over, students weren’t actively encouraged back on campus. It also meant there was little opportunity for her to build a sense of belonging to that institution.

So this year, she started at a different university in the same city, where there was less hemming, hawing, and hand-wringing about upsetting students and lecturers by insisting they get back on campus.

It sounds corny to say, but Jo’s thrived. She’s having fun, and arguably is learning in a more meaningful way by being around her peers and lecturers, although some of her classes do remain online. There’s a lot to be said about learning together, which is why 13 years of schooling happens in classrooms, and continues into higher education lecture halls and tutorials.

The idea of remote learning preceded the pandemic. Universities were responding to demands from students in the digital age for such services; where they could to attend lectures and tutorials online, or have them recorded to watch later. The pandemic accelerated this trend, creating a landscape of expensive empty rooms and scattered students and teachers.

It’s the in-person uni experiences – and the friends we made in the process – that most of us remember.Credit: Eddie Jim

Across Australia, universities will tell you that they are still pushing for students to return to campus, and that policies for in-person versus online learning differ. UTS, UNSW, Sydney University, and Melbourne University are now teaching in-person undergraduate degrees. Most say that students still expect lectures and tutorials to be available online. In Western Australia, Curtin University says its offers a mix of in-person and online learning but won’t break it down.

Cynics might say the delay by universities in getting people back is because they have been waiting for the money to come back. For the past few years, universities have struggled financially with the loss of revenue from foreign students, who only returned in large numbers this year.

In 2022, the higher education sector earned $17.8 billion in revenues from foreign students, which was well down on pre-COVID 2019 revenue of $27.5 billion.

As well, there has been pushback from some students who don’t want to attend in person. Not every student is like Jo, even though spending time with people usually makes most things, including lectures and tutorials, more appealing. It’s the in-person uni experiences – and the friends we made in the process – that most of us remember.

The arguments made by students preferring to learn online is that jobs, long commutes and limited contact hours mean that recorded lectures and tutorials serve them better. It’s worth remembering that before the internet, uni students also had jobs and, or, long commutes, but somehow still managed to attend lectures and tutorials on campus.

Some argue that making attendance at lectures compulsory is “not how you treat adults” and that deducting marks for no-shows is somehow a poor reflection on the service being offered. Students, they say, should want to attend because the lecture or tutorial is a great experience.

Piffle. The return-to-work conundrum has shown that adults of all ages, from their 20s, 30s to well past middle age have needed a firm prod to go back to the office. The university lecture hall is no different. Anthony Delano figured that out a long time ago.

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