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What uni students need to know about the coronavirus

James Davis

Careers Commentator
As COVID-19 sweeps the world, universities are closing their campuses and questions are being raised. We’ll help answer a few of the common ones.

Pictured: A now true-to-life stock image of the USYD main quadrangle

The coronavirus has had a profound effect on the world economy, with unprecedented GDP growth stagnation and stock market drops. There were over 182,000 confirmed cases at the time of writing, with over 440 confirmed cases in Australia climbing daily. 

If you don’t know all the protocols for staying safe, we strongly recommend reading the Australian Government safety and prevention guidelines first. Self-isolating for 14 days after suspected contact with a COVID-19 positive person, thoroughly washing your hands and avoiding crowded places are essential. 

The closing of university campuses are a natural byproduct of the outbreak. Many campuses are taking a two-week recess to prepare for online learning arrangements. This article aims to cover several key questions specific to uni students and the effect this will have, including:

  • Should I pull out of uni before the census date? 
  • Will I have to repeat a semester?
  • Will not being able to get on-campus affect my final grade?
  • Is there some other way to stay involved in campus culture?
  • Can I still do internships?
  • How can I prepare for online-only learning?
  • Can I participate in upcoming national holidays like ANZAC day?

If you’ve got other questions, send us an email at contact@theuniguide.com and we’ll do our best to answer.

Should I pull out of uni before the census date?

Short answer? Probably not. Long answer? Depends primarily on your institution and risk aversion. 

Many campuses are swiftly prototyping fully online course delivery. USYD already set a March 23rd deadline to be fully online. UQ is closing its doors until the 23rd in preparation for similar arrangements, with the exception of the small lab and practical classes still happening in person. But some are lagging behind. As of mid-late March, Monash is providing partial semester one online delivery for select courses. Personalised study plans and flexible learning are part of the package, but this understandably won’t be enough for students who have or are living with people that are highly susceptible (eg compromised immune systems or elderly) and need fully online solutions to ensure the safety of loved ones. Institutions like the University of Adelaide don’t even have any plans to go online as of March 17th, continuing enrolments as normal. So head to your university’s pressroom/ media page for the latest. 

Your choice of degree can also influence this decision. Most courses are capable of going fully online, but if you’re doing medicine or health course requiring a residency or similar inherently offline activity, you’re likely out of luck. These must be attended in person. 

The unfortunate bottom line is: Australia’s likely behind the rest of the world when it comes to appropriate coronavirus measures. Nevertheless, there are several recommendations we can make based on current information:

  • If you’re on a campus that has a hard deadline for fully-online delivery and in a degree that allows for it, it’s likely fine to stay enrolled. 
  • If your campus is dragging its feet regarding online delivery and you have no contact with high susceptibility individuals, stay enrolled, but do everything you can to minimise your exposure to the campus. If you suspect you’ll even be within occasional contact with highly susceptible people, seriously reconsider this, however. 
  • If your campus has no plans to do online delivery at all, it might be worth dropping out before the census date and testing the waters next semester. 

Pictured: Coronavirus not-so-rapid response team

Will I have to repeat a semester?

Only if your campus is outright closing down, but everyone will be in the same boat in that case. If you’re dropping out because your university isn’t working on online delivery, then naturally yes, you will have to repeat a semester. But it’s a small price to pay; lives are at stake. You’ve got an ironclad excuse if future employers ask about a gap in your resume. 

Will not being able to get on campus affect my final grade?

This primarily comes down to the success of online programs universities choose to implement. The only conceivable ‘systemic’ impact comes down to the execution; teaching an online course is a similar, but slightly different skill-set, to providing the offline teaching most professors and tutors are used to. Ultimately, university has always been about self-directed learning anyway, so as usual, it’ll primarily come down to you.

Some students work better in classrooms, while others will adapt more comfortably to online learning. A Grattan Institute report from 2018 found that a multitude of factors contribute to students dropping out, with online course delivery being the most significant factor, with over 51% of online undergrads never completing their course in a nine-month period; a stark contrast to the 79 - 90% average completion rates seen by most unis. 

Source: ‘Completion rates of domestic bachelor degree students: a cohort analysis’, 2005-2014. Department of Education and Training

But it’s definitely possible to get acquainted with an online learning environment and thrive, as evidenced by a 2018 study finding there wasn’t any difference in academic outcomes between a sample of offline and online students who actually went and completed their course. Yet the study was focussed on one degree, and only one course, so take it with a grain of salt.
Most campuses already have at least some portion of their cohort already online (and have had prior to COVID 19), so they already have at least some experience with online content. Provided you can stay motivated, you shouldn’t see your grades taking a hit. 

Is there some other way to stay involved in campus culture?

Partially - use best judgement. The government recently placed a ban on indoor gatherings of over 100 people and outdoor gatherings of over 500. So things like small club committee meetings or assignment group meetups are still fine. Just stay away from big lectures, pub crawls and open parties. Yes, you could technically orchestrate a 499 person rave cave a la Elon Musk, but you probably shouldn’t. 

Pictured: Your house

Can I still do internships?

This is a bit selective. Many companies are going remote to ride out the virus, so you might be hard-pressed to get a physical internship. Nevertheless, virtual internships are a thing. Services like InsideSherpa are involved in these. They’re currently a bit rare, but plenty of companies like KPMG are already diving in.

What is a virtual internship?

It’s basically what it says on the tin - you work remotely and communicate with your boss via emails, Skype, Zoom meetings, Slack etc. 

Who and what does it involve?

Loads of large companies are doing it. Think big four accounting firms or the big tech companies you know and love. They’re usually for IT, tech, digital marketing, finance, accounting or sales students and grads. You can basically intern all over the world without wearing pants.
The type of work you’ll be doing will vary quite a bit between fields and companies because this is pretty uncharted territory. And that carries with it some problems: they can be fairly unstructured and lack the kind of guidance you might get from offline programs. Nevertheless, might be worth a try if this kind of thing interests you. 

How do I get into one?

Similar application process to a standard internship. Flick your employer of choice a CV and cover letter and get ready for hard questions when they go to interview you. There’s a great article from The Balance going into detail we can recommend. 

Remember: only take virtual internships that award work credits or count toward your degree - the Fair Work Ombudsman still applies!

How can I prepare for online-only learning?

Fairly subjective, but we can recommend a few general practices. For one, you’ve got to stay organised. Open a Google Calendar or something equivalent, fill it with your deadlines and obligations and load each entry with notifications and alerts. You’re not going to have as much in the way of constant, on-campus reminders about all the stuff you need to do, so having that sorted should be priority one. Ask course coordinators for assignment or prac deadlines as soon as possible, complete with all the details you can get. 

Pictured: Master-level organisational skills

If you’re fortunate enough to have some cash, consider a backup internet connection of some kind. You’re about to become fully reliant on your home connection, but we live in Australia so it’ll be rubbish. Get a phone plan with data so you can hotspot for when it inevitably conks out. A study found that some developed countries, Australia included, experienced roughly 13mbps higher speeds on mobile connections than wifi, making it potentially a first-choice. If you decide to look for a signal booster however, please be careful, as many are illegal. Only use an approved service
If your home WiFi is unreliable, see if you can get an ethernet cable; you can pick one up for $30 and it just plugs into your router and feeds to your computer. Yeah, wires are ugly. But I’d rather trip over it daily than deal with an inconsistent connection. 

A final thing to keep an eye on is your university’s media page. Most unis are posting daily updates on the evolving coronavirus situation as it pertains to your studies and should be sending out emails to students, which you’ll likely have seen. If you’re in a situation where you’re not fully online, we’ve got to stress: just minimise the time you’re spending on campus. Stay for that prac, but don’t hang around. 

Can I participate in upcoming national holidays like ANZAC day?

Only from your house. Similar to what we said above, yes you could technically have a 499-person ANZAC Day commemoration, but you shouldn’t. Have a small gathering; have a Skype party; even just get up at dawn and pay your respects by yourself. But you shouldn’t be attending a big dawn service. Yes, it sucks, but everyone’s safer this way. 

Final thoughts...

This is a scary time, no doubt, but we’re going to be OK. Both your uni and the government are working to ensure you and your family’s safety. If you need anything clarified, just shoot us a message at contact@theuniguide.com, and we’ll either respond as soon as we can, add our answer to this article, or both. But in the meantime, follow the most up to date safety and prevention guidelines from the government and you’ll be giving yourself the best shot of staying healthy. Talk to you soon. 

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