For their own good, we should force students to physically attend lectures

Lockdowns demonstrated the damage isolation does to mental health. Why are universities prolonging it by recording lectures, asks Paul Wiltshire

September 27, 2023
A woman drags a man uphill on grass using a rope
Source: Getty Images

As parents, most of our time is spent stopping our children from doing things we think are bad for them. We fear that, left to their own devices, they will go astray. So we attempt to get them to eat healthily, get up and go to bed at appropriate hours and leave their screens and go outside – not least, to school.

Going to university, therefore, has always been a rite of passage for the young people who do it. Having reached legal adulthood, they are dropped off by their parents at their halls of residence and left to make all their choices for themselves.

Parents have always driven away from campuses with a sense of nervousness about how capable their offspring really are of making sensible decisions in their own best interests. But the rise of online lectures has only increased the margin for error.

Campus resource: Build community into the curriculum to improve in-person attendance

Post-pandemic, most universities have supposedly returned to mostly in-person teaching. But my research, published on the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies’ website (Occasional Paper 75), suggests that although a great number have genuinely returned to all in-person teaching, with strict attendance policies, many have not.

Why not? Because, it seems, lockdowns gave students a taste for watching lectures at their own convenience online and for attending seminars on Teams. Now some begrudge the obligation to physically attend lectures at a set time and can’t see the problem with watching online instead. And universities have responded to the market pressure. Hence, it is now entirely normal for lectures to be recorded and made available to watch online whenever students choose.

Universities often claim that students who never attend physical lectures will get noticed, but it isn’t at all clear whether anything will actually be done to stop them watching their entire courses online beyond a warning email or two, and perhaps the odd phone call. One English university quoted in my research claims that its online teaching is beneficial for its students because it saves them bus fares. Never mind the £60,000 they will accrue in course fees and maintenance as long as they can save a £2 bus fare and avoid the bother of accessing the full campus experience they have paid for!

We should hardly be surprised that many 18- to 21-year-olds can find themselves corrupted by the availability of online lectures. It is a compelling notion to a generation brought up with 10-hour-a-day screen habits to be able to consume their university courses just like Netflix series. But if – as many students, as well as lecturers, argued at the time – online-only instruction was suboptimal during the pandemic, surely it is still suboptimal?

Young adults should be experiencing the joy of the physical world, with real cycle rides through real parks to real buildings, in which they sit, listen and talk to real people. What do we think we are doing, as parents and as a society, driving our children hundreds of miles across the country to university towns only for them to hardly ever set foot on campus?

While, yes, students are technically adults, I believe it is incumbent on us to do more to force them from their bedrooms and screens and ensure their physical attendance at lectures and seminars. And that requires cooperation between universities and parents.

First, universities must be upfront in their prospectuses about how much online teaching each course entails (stated in a clear, standardised format) so that parents can steer their children away from courses with significant online teaching. Moreover, if lectures and seminars are advertised as being in-person, then they should be just that, and the loophole of allowing students to watch them online instead should be closed. The option of being able to consume teaching from your bedroom is just too corrupting to even the most dedicated of students.

Second, universities should inform parents when students are consistently failing to attend in person. It is true that even the most invested parents have limited influence on 18-year-olds who prefer to stay in bed than get up for lectures, but at least if we know that our children are consistently failing to access the experience they (and we) have paid for, we can try our best to convince them of the error of their ways.

Lecture attendance is, of course, not unconnected to mental health; the detrimental effect of isolation on the latter was aptly demonstrated during the pandemic. Guidance issued by Universities UK last year makes clear that “where there are serious concerns about a student’s safety or mental health, universities can decide to involve trusted contacts [such as parents] without [the students’] agreement”. But how carefully are universities monitoring mental health? Anti-suicide prevention campaigners have their doubts, as do I. Non-attendance at lectures can see students put on a mental health watch list, triggering occasional phone calls, but students’ assurances that online lectures work for them are taken at face value.

During A levels, schools are obliged by funding regulations to provide minimum fixed levels of contact hours and to properly record pupil attendance. Yet, so far, the Office for Students hasn’t exercised any societal control to stop online teaching diminishing the full university experience that our young adults should be benefiting from. It needs to act. It needs to stop this pedagogic free-for-all in its tracks.

Paul Wiltshire is the father of a UK university student.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (10)

Students are more than just "technically adults". They are adults, and as such it's just not appropriate to inform parents if students aren't turning up to lectures. Apart from cases where there's a concern about the safety of a student, it's not the job of universities to keep parents updated on how students are doing. The bigger question is why students are choosing not to engage with lectures, and why some courses are so dependent on didactic lectures rather than more engaging, active learning approaches. But getting parents to force students to attend lectures they don't see the value of, isn't going to solve anything.
I agree that students need to be physically present more and this goes for all staff too. As a part-time academic now, there are many of my full-time colleagues who are no more present than I am. We need to return to something closer to 2019. The point about parents also stands in that as a member of staff, I am not allowed to communicate with a parent without the explicit permission of the student. University is not school and students are adults. However, they should be called for an interview with the Senior Tutor for poor attendance but there are only so many free appointment hours. It is sad that valuable face-to-face sessions that are useful for pedagogical and pastoral reasons.
The thing that is always missed in these rants is that while it's true that Lecture attendance is low post-pandemic, its not that much lower than it was pre-pandemic, when students were already starting to not attend.
This article has a very narrow conception of students - basically the student is a school-leaver, living in a hall of residence, a £2 bus fare away from campus, with a concerned parent hovering over them. I suspect that in the UK this is a minority student profile, it certainly has little resonance with where I work, where most students are in the paid workforce, many cannot access accommodation, many spend significant amounts on private vehicles to access university, and many have caring responsibilities. And that is just one aspect. On the other is the significant impact of digital technology on HE, from Teams/Zoom, VLEs, online assessment and, of course, AI. Seeking to return to the halcyon days, whether they are in the 1970s or pre-pandemic, is not a practicable solution. We need to address where students are really at.
I work at a post 92 institution - our students work, our students have caring responsibilities, our students range from 18 to their 80s (yes, seriously). None of this cliched rubbish above relates to the vast majority of my students. Also, we work very hard to be aware of and deal with those issues for our students. We schedule classes around the idea they work/have families and are busy. But we also ensure they are aware they remain full-tile students. In addition, attendance, being 'in the room' interacting with their fellow students, remains vital to the full and fulsome learning experience. It is not just a matter of pedagogy. We are mistaken if we think that technology can provide the nuance of human engaged, active learning. I can do a lot online - but I can (and do) engage with my students, interact and impact with them more in person. I have been told for years I am teaching soft/employable/professional skills on top of the subject matter - and I cannot do a lot of that (the majority, actually) online or outside a classroom. This article is not a great help in pleading the case for F2F. It may actually be a hindrance given the content, focus and tone - but I agree with the underlying motive.
Bizarre article that infantilises undergraduates. An 18/19 year old can die for King and Country but apparently still needs close parental monitoring of their attendance. I agree that attendance should be tracked with a minimum set requirement. Perhaps, if this percentage is not met then marks for the relevant module are lost. However, on the other hand, what if the lecturer does no more than read their PowerPoint slides in a drab monotone manner.
You skirted up to a problem, spotted it, and then took precise corrective measures to avoid the implication. Yes, students are going into massive debts for their education, and they're shy the two-quid to get to campus because the Theme Park University model beloved of CFOs everywhere has made campus an expensive place to exist, where you rent your footprint by the overpriced coffee. Cost of living has killed the campus of the 1980s, and the idea of free spaces to exist without charge doesn't sit well with the neoliberal campus model of students as harvestable resources to prop up research department budgets. We've priced the students off the campus, and we've priced their existence off the market. Degrees are minimum mandatory tickets to ride, and it's no longer a model of our best and brightest motivated individuals sitting about pondering the mystery of life - it's our most and widest, getting their trade certs to head into careers that will barely service the debt they've incurred for the certification. What we need to be asking is why, when as far back as the 1980s, School of the Air, postal based distance education, and more recently, 1990s to 2019 online education produced quality graduates, have we failed to capitalise on the vast prior learning in the field to offer good, flexible and competent online streams to supplement accessible on campus learning. Perhaps the failure of the 2020s was a global pandemic putting the dampner on the experience? Or was it that we'd already had an abandoning of the student as the centre of the campus life much prior to that, and this only served to highlight that sitting in underwhelming cinema seats watching a monologue was hardly Shakespeare at the Globe, and better options including self service modes existed? Students aren't a homogenous mass, campus was overrated in the 1990s, and some of us who skipped classes are now those delivering classes. It's just that now, I can offer a way to reach more students when and where they can be, be that within a 10 metre radius of my physical presence on a Thursday 3 to 5pm in Room 1337, or via the modern technology that you happen to have used to communicate your idea in this article to us, the audience. Because I didn't see you standing my room telling me this story, but I have engaged with you over this modern talky-type subsystem called the internet.
In alot of professional courses (e.g., nursing), attendance is mandatory and students not meeting minimum attendance risks expulsion from the course. I don't see why this cannot be made into a university wide policy for all courses. I also don't see why the logically it should not - are we stating that learning F2F is important for only professional programmes and not important for other programmes?
The article is completely out of touch with reality. Just like working from home has become the new norm for many staff in HE and has brought with it life changing benefits in terms of well being and productivity, online courses are here to stay because they are what students want and need. I often wonder if those proclaiming the value of all Face to Face teaching do so because that is the way they wish to deliver it rather than the way the students want to digest it. I look at the the content in our VLE on so many courses and it is simply breathtaking, so much better than copying illegible notes off a board in a stuffy lecture theatre. The article does not mention the scope of learner analytics and how that can be used more effectively in monitoring online study rather than just taking a register in a lecture hall which tells you nothing about the students' learning or the quality of material being delivered or how it can be improved. The sooner people accept that the world has changed and embrace the technology rather than fighting it the better off we will be.
First, I don't think universities are at liberty to inform parents of students' behaviour. I'm recently retired. Where I worked, videos of most lectures were available pre covid, but the students' use of them wasn't as widespread. Questioning whether they should be provided brought the response that some students, through physical or mental disability are not able to attend lectures in person.