Studying for a Masters degree during a pandemic

  • 30 June 2020
  • Education
  • Alana Cullen

When enrolling onto a Masters course in the UK, you have expectations of what the year ahead will look like. It goes something like this: pay £10,000 tuition, make some friends in the new city you find yourself in, and then study, study some more, and finally complete your dissertation (usually all in combination with a part- time job) – you are burnt out, but at least you are a step ahead in the career ladder. 

However, this year, that plan went out of the window – no one could have prepared this year’s cohort of students for the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, as the academic year is coming to a close, we can begin to assess to what extent Covid-19 interrupted Masters students’ studies. 

On the whole, Masters courses have adapted well to the pandemic “under the circumstances” says Kate Quillin, MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College London. The course made a “conscious effort to make sure we were still happy with our options and were very open with us about whether we wanted to carry on teaching or postpone.” Rather fortunately the pandemic coincided with the Easter holiday, allowing time for staff to formulate a plan of action for the third term of online teaching. Henry Biggs, studying MSc Biotechnology and Enterprise at The University of Manchester credits the success of the transition to individual lecturers and academics who have supported the students. 

But the support from universities to their students has been far from perfect. Postgraduate students are concerned about the inconsistent use of no disadvantage policies, which when applied ensures that students marks do not suffer as a result of the pandemic. Despite universities agreeing to this, application of this is at discretion of the specific department or course. A divisive action causing students within the same university to have been awarded a safety net, and yet their peers in a different faculty, have been left without. 

Two Imperial College London students have had very different experiences. Hashim Mastan, studying MSc Advanced Mechanical Engineering, has been awarded a “generous safety net policy, in that the lowest module mark will not count. All other modules will be scaled so that the average marks across the cohort are consistent with previous cohorts' data. It is unlikely we will be scaled down; only up, if at all.” In addition, any failed modules are allowed to be resat in August without penalty. Whereas Kate Quillin’s course has not adopted such measures. “It bothers me that it hasn’t been adopted everywhere,” explains Kate, with the past three months of studies being “such a challenging environment, why aren’t we having that discussion?” Some universities, such as UCL, have adopted universal no-disadvantage polices across their campuses – all other universities should be following suit. “Covid-19 does effect everybody,” states Henry Biggs, and so the policy should be ensuring no detriment to studies. 

There are rumours that Covid-19 will change university teaching permanently –perhaps online teaching is easier, and cheaper – but it neglects the key social draw of a university campus. When forced into breakout rooms on Zoom there is no chance for “holistic organic discussion,” and although it has improved over the course of lockdown, “you cannot replace the face to face interaction you had,” explains Kate Quillin. Your course is also the best place “to meet like-minded people,” says Sophie Marriott, who is set to study MSc Media, Power and Public Affairs at Royal Holloway University in the upcoming academic year. 

Socialising is also essential in maintaining motivation and mental health. Kate Quillin explains how the difficultly to separate home life and university life makes it hard to remain motivated ­– “It isn’t online learning particularly, it’s the environment that contributes to how much I get out of online learning.” As a student you do not have a separate study space, “you literally sleep, eat, work in the same room,” says Henry Biggs – there is no release or social event to look forward to, when your world is your bedroom. Universities are aware of this issue and have been encouraging students to reach out and talk about their mental health, with some even offering online counselling sessions. But if universities understand the effect of Covid-19 on mental health and motivation, it begs the question: why aren’t all courses and departments adopting a no disadvantage policy? 

Where universities have been failing is to support students with financial hardships. Many post-graduate students have lost their source of income, leading to an inability to pay the final instalment of tuition fees. Some students in this position have faced poor communication and long delays in action when applying for financial hardship funds. Similarly, with the new technology demands of online learning, there is an expectation to have good Wi-Fi and a decent laptop, a luxury that not all students have. Some universities have advertised long distance laptop loans to match the technology expectations of online learning, however access to these was not as easy as initially stated. With the average Masters in the UK costing around £8,000, Sophie Marriott explains how this crisis “highlights how unreasonable the amount they charge you already is,” but students are prepared to be “saddled with this debt” for the necessary furtherment in their careers.

Looking forward, plans are already in place to bring learning back to campus come September. Imperial College have already informed students that they will be teaching through “multi-mode” delivery – combining on-campus learning and assessment with the benefits of remote learning, ensuring that at all times social distancing guidelines are met. Other universities have also adopted this new hybrid learning method; Royal Holloway are ensuring that everything is available online for those who cannot attend class in person, explains Sophie Marriott. Universities are rightly keeping their options open and should continue to keep students well informed of the contingency plans in place. 

With the uncertainty that next year brings, some students are turning away from traditional Masters courses and looking towards distance learning. Distance learning Masters boast self- paced study that offers students the time and flexibility needed to balance work and study. They last between 1-6 years and have multiple intakes every year, allowing students to start their studies when the time suits. With over 2000 online Masters courses already established in the UK, the choice to learn online could be the future. Mari Crotty decided to undertake a distance learning masters in MSc Public Health, as opposed to attending a taught campus course. These courses “have been around for a long time … are already set up online and well established.” With the unknowns being so great for next year, it is not cost effective to put that much money into furthering your education when you are not sure what experience you are going to get out of it says Mari Crotty. Most postgraduate students cannot defer a year because they need their qualification to progress professionally; with online distance learning the risk of uncertainty is lessened as you know exactly what you will get from your learning experience from day one. 

For Masters students the focus now, as restrictions begin to ease, is to get back into the lab and out to complete their dissertations. And when employers see that students have graduated in the year 2020, they should credit the person’s resilience in completing a Masters degree in such adversity.  

Alana Cullen is a MSc student at Imperial College London studying Science Communication, and is the Social Media and Communication's Officer for the Foundation for Science and Technology.