A number of UK universities are preparing to keep lectures online into the autumn term.
It raises the prospect of Covid disrupting another academic year – and will prompt more questions about fee refunds.
Students have called plans for another term of online lectures “unacceptable”.
“Online teaching is in no way a substitute for in-person learning,” says a petition launched by University of Leeds students.
About half of students in England have only been able to return to face-to-face teaching this week, not long before the term ends – having been taught online since Christmas.
But a growing number of universities seem to be anticipating carrying on with a mix of online and in-person teaching into the autumn term.
The University of Liverpool says it wants as “much face-to-face teaching as possible”, but is expecting a blend of online and in-person.
“In practice this may mean instead of coming on to campus for lectures you may be asked to watch some short pre-recorded videos created by your tutor which cover the same themes and topics as the original lecture,” says Liverpool’s plan for teaching next year.
A University of Leeds spokesman said: “We intend to give every student a substantial on-campus experience throughout next semester, including multiple face-to-face sessions each week.”
But many lectures “will be delivered online as part of an overall hybrid approach”.
Keeping lectures online prompted an angry response from some students, who started a petition saying that it was “ridiculous” and a “disgrace” – and calling for a “complete return to in-person teaching”.
Supporters of the petition complained about the £9,250 tuition fees being charged and that many students have had very few hours of in-person teaching this year.
“Now children are in school full time, people are back in the workplace and the general public can visit pubs, theatres and cinemas… there is absolutely no need for any lectures to remain online,” wrote a petitioner.
“My daughter has had an awful year stuck in her room… Get a grip please,” wrote a parent backing the petition.
The students’ union at Leeds says it is planning a survey of students’ experience of online learning this year and what they want for next year.
The previous two academic years have been disrupted – with many students having to spend months off campus – but it seems as though the pandemic could mean a third year of changes.
Even if students are back on campus they could still be watching lectures online.
The London School of Economics expects the “vast majority” of seminars and classes to be taught in-person, but lectures will be “largely delivered online”.
St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh expect large lectures to be online – and the University of Manchester is planning a “blended approach, with a mix of both on-campus and online elements”.
St Andrews says this “interim” guidance reflects the “significant uncertainty” about physical distancing requirements in the autumn.
University College London says courses on campus would “prioritise interactive face-to-face teaching, such as seminars and workshops”.
But some modules “will be mostly online and others completely online if all learning outcomes can be met this way”, says the information for next year’s students.
An academic at a London university, speaking anonymously, contacted the BBC to suggest there would be financial savings for universities from reducing staffing levels and making a longer-term shift to keeping lectures online.
But the National Union of Students also said there could be some positive advantages in teaching online.
“Online lectures, remote access to resources and other digital provision has significantly improved access to education and, offered alongside in-person teaching, gives students greater choice over how they learn,” said union vice president, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio.
“No matter what teaching methods universities and colleges use, they must provide consistently good courses for all students,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students.
Universities had to provide “timely and clear information for students on how their courses will be taught next year”, she said.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK said universities were trying to plan without knowing what restrictions will be in place in the autumn – and that even if lectures were online, students would still have access to facilities such as libraries and laboratories.
“Universities have a strong track record in delivering excellent blended tuition, and we have been clear that quality and quantity should not drop,” said a Department for Education spokeswoman.