Access Sussex, a student-led campaign aiming to improve accessability conditions at the university, reflect on the current university policy regarding hybrid learning

The university’s plan for teaching and learning in Semester Two has now changed to fully in-person and on campus unless you are immunocompromised or unable to travel due to restrictions. The university reports on their webpage: 

“In Semester 2 we will continue to provide teaching and learning in-person and on campus. We know from student feedback that this is the preferred teaching and learning method for the majority of our students. As a result, we expect students returning after the Winter vacation to be on campus for the start of teaching.” 

The university clarifies:

“If you have declared an immunosuppressed condition as part of your initial registration you will be able to access teaching and learning online during Semester 2.”

To little effect, the university continues to make statements such as these via internal emails and public statements on their webpage. However, in practice, there is little of this to be seen. Information gathered by Access Sussex shows that many are unable to access remote learning.

It seems that the university has left tutors and lecturers to decide on their own accord whether or not to stick to hybrid learning, preventing a standardisation of the procedure. Thus, essentially leaving access to education to be decided at the tutor’s discretion.

Students are encountering a mix of responses and are left with confusing timetables. Some tutors are willing to provide hybrid lessons, some are not. All the while, those struggling with their illnesses and symptoms, are left to do the admin work which their School of study should be overseeing and hoping that they will not remain behind in their degree based solely on their disability. 

More than this, students who happen to have not registered their immunosuppressed condition at the beginning of term, will not even ‘benefit’ from the same futile exemption. It seems that taking care of equality issues for Sussex means just slapping on a narrow label on a very ableist policy. In reality, some students may get diagnosed mid-term, suffer from other high-risk conditions which may not necessarily class as immunosuppression; they may have caring responsibilities; or even yet, live with family members, or flatmates that are themselves immunosuppressed. It follows clearly that the university has not considered anything other than the most extreme cases. Even further, the ableist policy seems to live in its own reality. In practice, many people face problems in obtaining proper evidence from the doctor, many perhaps have been diagnosed in a different country and cannot provide their doctor’s note. This is not an unknown or simple mistake to make.

Discussions have posed whether this is an inequality issue. The Equality Act 2010 dictates that public authorities, including education providers, must not discriminate. The basis for this includes the 9 protected characteristics within which sits disability as well as pregnancy and maternity, and those with caring responsibilities. 

One of the main excuses for not offering the option of hybrid learning is that it won’t have the same quality as in person learning. As stated by many communications between staff and students:

“Any remote provision will not be a like for like experience to that which our in-person students have.”

A week into the term, students were still grappling with missing lecture content, and their schools/teaching groups were struggling to put together what is necessary for a remote or hybrid class. That is, a Zoom link, and much of the camera/microphone equipment that has been used for the last two years of our education provision.

Why should those who have some of the most serious health complications, and who pay the same £9,250 a year as any other students, not receive equal access to education? This is yet another legal obligation that the Equality Act provides: the duty to provide equal access to education. 

We may also think of possible reasons the university may have chosen this policy. Internal communications suggest that last term’s attendance had been a big factor in this choice, as student attendance had dropped to a new low. Seemingly, it has been forgotten by management that attendance could have also dropped due to the world-shaking pandemic everyone has been grappling with for the past two years. Family members becoming ill, new caring responsibilities, financial hardship, unemployment, fear, anxiety and so on. Many reasons could have contributed to low attendance, but the remote style of learning is most definitely NOT one of them. 

Ensuring student’s health and offering alternate methods of study will most definitely contribute to rates of student satisfaction, too. The university must remember that its forte stands in its reputation as an inclusive institution. What can new prospective students take away from the University disadvantaging its own students in the face of on-going risk?

To see the hypocrisy of this situation you must look no further than Instagram. The university is now proudly advertising their new “100% online” MA courses. Six new courses presented under a clear slogan of:

“New ways to learn, new ways to make a change.”

The university has proven capabilities to provide online and hybrid options but are choosing to pretend that this is impossible, and that it doesn’t fit the standard of ‘reasonable’ adjustments that disabled students are entitled to.  

We implore you to join our campaign in demanding equal access to education for all students as no one should have to risk their health, and sanity in order to learn. The university cannot claim to be an equal opportunity institution while continuing to allow for discriminatory policies such as the complete removal of hybrid learning. 

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