A STUDENT has hit out at a top Scots university’s last-minute change to blended learning after more students than ‘forecasted’ descended on the campus town.

The University of St Andrews announced on Monday that it would be taking a “phased approach” to the introduction of face-to-face teaching when the new semester starts in ten days’ time.

But with orientation due to start next week, many students – who had already arrived on campus in anticipation of in-person classes - were left feeling the announcement had come too late.

Lottie Doherty, who studies Art History and Philosophy, told the Herald Scotland that while she understood the unpredictable nature of a pandemic, she was frustrated since “the Scottish government had released clear guidance for universities months ago.”

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She said: “Obviously things can change quite quickly with the current situation, and it's a new and strange time for everyone, so to an extent I can understand why the university wouldn't want to announce solid plans and then have to make a u-turn if circumstances changed, but the Scottish government released clear guidance for universities months ago.

“This email should have been sent much sooner, with much clearer guidance about what this semester would be like throughout the summer.

“Sending it just a week before orientation week, two weeks before the start of teaching, means that some students have bought expensive flights, travelled long distances, signed accommodation contracts, and quarantined for two weeks, only to be told that they could have stayed at home for another month.

The updated guidance sent from the University of St Andrews at the beginning of this week outlined plans for most teaching to take place online for the first two weeks of the semester, with less than 10 per cent of classes being delivered in person to begin with.

According to the email, only after week three will the university aim to gradually reintroduce small classes.

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For Lottie, the plans seem reasonable, seeing as safety should take first priority in the current situation.

Nevertheless, she felt that the email contradicted what had been conveyed previously – namely that in-person teaching to small class sizes would be provided.

Furthermore, Lottie believes it failed to acknowledge the reason why students were on campus – because they had been told face-to-face teaching would occur.

She added: “The most recent email blamed this move to online only teaching for most students, for at least the first month of the semester, on having more students in St Andrews than expected, which it says is due to more incoming freshers because of the exam results fiasco.

“But in this email the university doesn't acknowledge that there are more students in town than expected because the university told students that they should be in St Andrews for the start of the semester, and not allowing students to just choose to study online if they wanted to.”

HeraldScotland: Professor Sally MapstoneProfessor Sally Mapstone

St Andrews Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone, said the new approach to the start of the new academic year was a “prudent and pragmatic” response to the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.

She said: “I have listened carefully to our staff, and students, and our local community, and while there is a substantial desire to return to doing what we do best as a university, there is an understandable anxiety amongst some members of our teaching staff about the next few weeks.

“I know that tutors want to teach in-person, and our students want to learn that way, but the experience of all of us is diminished if apprehension affects the classroom dynamic disproportionately, as I believe it could at present.

“In all these circumstances therefore, it is prudent to begin our new semester with the phased approach to in-person teaching which I have described, subject to Scottish Government guidance.

In Professor Mapstone’s email addressed to students and staff, she outlined the reasons for making the policy adjustment.

It read: “It has become apparent in the past few days that the number of students who will arrive to study with us in St Andrews is likely to be greater than anyone had forecast, partly because the late changes to the way A Level and Higher exam results were calculated have obliged us to admit significantly more entrants than would otherwise have been the case.

“This has posed some challenges to timetabling and scheduling under the current physical distancing restrictions.

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“We now estimate that up to 9000 undergraduates and postgraduates plan to be in St Andrews during this first semester, whereas our early modelling had suggested a community of only 7000 would return or enroll.

“It is also becoming evident that up to 1000 students, both entrants and returners, are unable to join us in person for visa or other reasons. This has implications for Semester 1 modules in both pedagogical and organisational terms, suggesting that we would do well to use the first few weeks of semester to take the measure of our module enrolments and to allow students to settle down before increasing our in-person teaching component.”