1 Government communication during the Covid-19 period focused mainly on the need to protect the general public, especially the most vulnerable. New schemes (e.g. the “Covid-19 Scientific Council”) were set up to help the government take decisions (Bergeron et al., 2020). Controversies, hesitations and contradictions have been widely publicised in the media and French people have become accustomed to daily morbid announcements of the number of deaths, hospitalised patients and some new indicators – “overburdened intensive care units (ICUs)”, “R” actual reproduction rate” & “Case rate” to be found TousAntiCovid [the French official Covid-19 track & trace app.] (Marsico, 2020). These pretty uncontroversial figures do provide a scientific base for information without strengthening political leaders’ statements that have featured hesitation, u-turns (e.g. on masks and vaccines) and public health measure procrastination (general or local curfew / lockdown, effective date and so on). Of course, it is always possible to base political decisions on scientific facts that everyone accepts, but at the risk of the population at large not buying into a new measure and alienating scientists who might not like taking on such responsibility and often speak up against politicians using science for their own ends (Crevoisier, Matet and Poupet, 2020).
2 Nevertheless, when a pandemic hits, everyone expects a detailed public health action plan that seeks to protect people, to be consistently applied and furthers accountability. While indicators are used as justification for political decisions, this can divide public opinion, such that some may object and take action for or against on the back of safeguarding civil liberties (Fallon, Thiry and Brunet, 2020). Political communication then apportions blame rather than empowering people. Trust in politicians dissipates and people stop believing them. Fake news thrives (Mercier, 2004; Monnier, 2020).
3 However, whilst many French people criticise how the government has handled Covid and their public statements (Mariette and Pitti, 2021), many others, parents  and students acknowledge that in primary, secondary and higher education, government statements have generally remained consistent, and steps taken in practice have been in line with official guidelines, despite some questionable decisions like schools resuming from 11 May 2020, which surprised many who did not expect this.
4 So, in practice and in trade union and staff representative observations, numerous dysfunctions have arisen, and the way people have interpreted various circulars has prompted them to criticise inconsistent and conflicting directives. However, can we really accuse politicians of making inconsistent statements? Clearly, a distinction should be made between public statements and circulars / instructions to schools & universities or speeches to education authorities: mixing up the different communication types may have created misunderstandings, misinterpretations and potentially dangerous situations for staff and students.
5 The public health guidelines seem to have been introduced in a very top-down manner and sought to reassure and protect the public but the objective was (and is) to communicate and not to cut out errors and inconsistencies. Nevertheless, disruption arising therefrom has had varying effects depending on universities and their leaders’ degree of autonomy, which in turn has reduced their buy-in of the official guidelines.
6 Universities managed to reorganise rapidly and issue instructions that reduced face-to-face teaching, while maintaining essential learning, largely online. French secondary schools for 14-18 year-olds [Lycées], by prioritising final year classes, and despite many different interpretations e.g. regarding physical education (PE), also managed to carry on teaching.
7 The same is relatively true for French secondary schools for 10-14 year-olds [Collèges]. Meanwhile, regarding primary schools, countless inconsistencies and contradictory instructions piled up, and bad interpretations were issued, which parents and primary school teachers, whose voices have not been heard during the pandemic, did not like at all. It is difficult to compare the different school levels but the extent of professionalism in teaching and in teachers was evident throughout (Rouet, Attarça, Chomienne and Côme, 2021).
8 This paper’s purpose is to compare and contrast government decisions, i.e. President Macron’s decisions announced in his TV talks to the people, which were landmarks for the government in such an emergency, and were later extended by statements from various government ministers and MESRI (Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation) circulars issued to universities as well as universities’ organisational decisions (Section One) and students’ reactions and views (Section Two). This paper largely delves into the steps taken by the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ)’s, specifically those of two branches thereof, the Institut Supérieur de Management, Institut d’Administration des Entreprises (ISM-IAE) and the Institut Universitaire de Technologie de Mantes (IUTM) .
1 – Speeches, decisions and government instructions
9 Covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact on worldwide education systems. As of April 2020, according to UNESCO , more than 1.6 billion students across the world have undergone disrupted learning, primarily caused by total lockdowns. Most universities have been unable to offer students accommodation on their premises and have sought to keep teaching going, particularly by introducing online learning, in a rush and with no advance planning.
10 Since March 2020, lockdowns of varying duration depending on country have been interspersed with periods of limited restriction easing when staff have had to somehow plan the disrupted academic year while sticking to Bachelor’s Master’s Doctorate degree courses. This has of course been very hard for practical courses in laboratories or workshops, which require equipment, learning techniques and specific assistance that is impossible online.
11 As a result, universities moved virtually all teaching, student tests and research online, often in a rather trial and error way, against a backdrop of huge uncertainty for everyone involved due to both fear of the pandemic itself and rather condescendingly over-detailed government instructions that left no space for personal initiative. University management teams have at times drawn up action plans, anticipating, in particular, equipment purchases (laptops both for admin staff and students) when possible and when commercially available. Right from the Covid outbreak, responsiveness and consistency, the need to take stock and regularly assess the consequences of steps taken, and vigilance as to any increase in student inequalities has underpinned university leaders’ concerns, against the uncertain backdrop as to how long the crisis would last (d’Albis, 2021).
12 In some countries, governments opted to allow universities to make clear plans for academic semesters or years, even though the unpredictable situation in the months following March and then September 2020 should have brought about changes in these arrangements. For example, in Slovakia, universities remained closed for the entire 2020-2021 academic year. This was clearly a political decision to give universities a response and action framework so they could get ready for the post-covid future.
13 Circulars to higher education establishments should not be viewed in isolation. Government communication has been based primarily on President Macron’s speeches either those announced beforehand – his “addresses to the French people” (12 March, 16 March, 13 April, 14 June & 24 November 2020) or his “talks” (28 October 2020 & 31 March 2021), but also his 2 November 2020 solemn address at the start of the school year, and his 31 December 2021 New Year greetings. These speeches were supplemented by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health and Solidarity, but also by other statements and interviews. So French people are accustomed to regular, solemn statements, as well as interpretations deriving from individual phrases.
14 Figures 1 and 2 provide keyword clouds of the two groups of speeches and circulars, highlighting how similar the narrative has been (Boughzala, Moscarola and Hervé, 2014) and, also, the prevailing tone: the first group being protective and attentive to the ongoing situation, and the second, more technical.
Keyword clouds, 12 March 2020 to 31 March 2021 Emmanuel Macron speeches and talks and 27 March 2020 to 3 April 2021 MESRI circulars
Keyword clouds, 12 March 2020 to 31 March 2021 Emmanuel Macron speeches and talks and 27 March 2020 to 3 April 2021 MESRI circulars
15 On Thursday 12 March 2020, the President solemnly updated French people saying that “in the vast majority of cases, Covid-19 is harmless”, but we need to protect the elderly and frail. He then announced complete closure of schools and universities from the following Monday, “to […] protect and reduce spreading of the virus”, and called for students and researchers to join the battle against the virus. The following day, the Ministry of National Education and Youth’s first circular called for “ongoing learning” for primary and secondary school pupils.
16 During the 16 March evening, after a European coordination meeting in the morning, Emmanuel Macron addressed the French people again and used the word “war” seven times, a term that he would use only once more, during his 13 April address. This rhetoric was much commented on and was consistent with the call for mobilisation, the announcement of sacrifices, the priority given to protection, survival of the overstretched health service and the need to get to grips with the issue through research. A first lockdown lasting nearly two months (until 11 May) was decided for universities, during the 2nd semester, when most teaching takes place. The term “lockdown” was used for the first time by the Minister of the Interior on 16 March, when he issued rules effective the following day, that became part of the President’s vocabulary from 13 April onwards .
17 In some universities, lectures became impossible, even online, and so teaching adjustments were planned. For others, after a surprising week, special arrangements were brought in, doing away with final exams and instead focussing on continuous assessment. Most of all, to cope with the unprecedented problems, staff tried out new arrangements and stepped up talking to students. On 13 and 20 March, the education minister tried to reassure students, including on internships, ongoing tuition through e-learning and students’ living arrangements . However, the first MESRI circular then came on 27 March, i.e. more than two weeks after lockdown, the same day as the first lockdown extension was announced. This was a complicated issue involving delaying university elections and lengthening executives and elected officials’ terms of office, a very sensitive public and media issue.
18 On 3 May, after a second lockdown extension and after the President’s third address to the French people, a circular provided details of gradual easing of lockdown restrictions planned for ten days later. Indeed, Emmanuel Macron talked of “results” and “hope” being reborn. “Were we prepared for this crisis?” he wondered, “obviously not enough, but we have coped”. This was especially true of universities… The President acknowledged “shortcomings”: the issue of masks and hand-sanitiser was very sensitive at the time and universities were unsure how to reopen without them, as they were difficult to obtain.
19 However, the reopening announced would be “gradual”, with “bespoke rules […] in light of results”. This speech left the university community perplexed…. so they waited for the 14 June presidential address specifically mentioning universities.
20 The 3 May circular provided for a gradual resumption of face-to-face learning, depending on the covid situation, but not for teaching which remained remote until “the beginning of the 2020 academic year”, with the exception of continuing education. This was deemed ancillary, but the preference was still for remote teaching. It was important to avoid ruining the semester and tests were to be held on a face-to-face basis, “if possible”. This circular was both distressing (any move was subject to official assessment of the covid situation, and so ultimately to how hospitals would cope) and reassuring (arrangements enabled staff to carry on in the same way as during lockdown).
Ministerial circulars and presidential speeches
Date Circular heading Related topics President Macron 13 March 2020 Ongoing learning organisation and monitoring Address to the French people 12 March 2020 Address to the French people 16 March 2020 27 March 2020 Procedure for postponing university elections Extension of head teachers’ and executives’ terms of office 3 May 2020 Planning for MESRI institution lockdown restriction easing Address to the French people 13 April 2020 11 June 2020 Guidelines for MESRI operators, planning for the start of the 2020 academic year 26 June 2020 Extension of PhD, ATER and research contracts Address to the French people 14 June 2020 7 July 2020 Welcoming international students Visa issuance, border crossing 6 August 2020 Guidelines for MESRI operators, preparation for the start of the 2020 academic year 17 August 2020 Welcoming international students Travel restrictions, visas, quarantine, border health regulations 7 September 2020 Guidelines for MESRI operators, planning for the start of the 2020 academic year Interview 14 October 2020
Ministerial circulars and presidential speeches
Date Circular heading Related topics President Macron 30 October 2020 Bespoke lockdown in higher education and research establishments Speech 28 October 2020 Back to school message 2 November 2020 19 December 2020 Gradual resumption of teaching from January Curfew Address to the French people 24 November 2020 President’s 31 December 2020 New Year’s greetings 21 January 2021 Test Alert Protect strategy in higher education establishments Meeting in Saclay 21 January 2020 22 January 2021 Update of instructions on gradual resumption of teaching from 25 January 15 February 2021 New rules for student and scientist mobility 15 February 2021 Student internships 1 March 2021 Updating of health guidelines Measures to combat the spread of covid variants, University catering 3 April 2021 Guidelines for higher education establishments Gradual recovery Address to the French people 31 March 2021
21 However, public health instructions were debated at universities especially as to whether to reopen for teaching. Indeed, the circular referred to a Covid-19 Scientific Council memo which provided for “one-metre social distancing” between people. For building caretakers, these indications were insufficient: how could they put this rule into practice regarding premises and furniture layout? In particular, at UVSQ, several arrangements were reviewed, before simplification led to a consensus on maximum classroom occupancy numbers. On 11 June, a new circular provided further details and set out “recommendations that will enable universities to plan for a rather unique new academic year”, as explained in an accompanying letter from the education minister. Staff and students were thus expected on campus as from September, obeying health instructions, including masks, and special occupancy capacities based on “social distancing”. Timetables would have to be adapted to avoid confusion, scientific meetings were to remain online, and any student internships also online.
22 On 14 June President Macron announced, in a new address, that the following day all of France (except Mayotte and French Guiana) would be placed in a “green zone”, with “greater” resumption of work, “reopening of cafés and restaurants” in the Paris (Île-de-France) region, and voting in the second round of municipal elections to be on 28 June in person. In July, a circular announced that visas and rules would apply again for crossing borders depending on country of origin, not reassuring for universities that regularly have a high number of foreign students.
23 But the issue for higher education was how to follow Ministry instructions at the same time as those of healthcare leaders, and also, those of the French defence and security authorities under the “Vigipirate” plan [France’s national security alert system] which remained in force during the pandemic. University chairpersons had to make sure departments monitored instructions and provisions in order to be able to take decisions. Opportunities to talk with the government were rare, with the result that the public health emergency was preventing people going back to work.
24 In August, two further circulars and a draft gave more details on “recommendations” to universities, including Public Health High Council opinions and July decrees that prescribed general measures. “More flexible covid instructions” could be envisaged, “subject to developments” (6 August), as a “covid resumption” could be ruled out. Social distancing to be introduced was better explained: one metre between people “side by side or face to face, or a seat between people sitting in enclosed spaces” plus “routine” cleaning at least once a day. On 17 August, the Ministry drew up a list of “red” and “very red” countries whose nationals admitted to universities would be required to test negative or self-isolate. Universities were asked to urge enrolled students to start the visa process as early as possible.
25 The aim was to try to ease the situation so that universities could continue to welcome foreign students. Nevertheless, meanwhile, following their first online learning experience, many universities offered distance learning courses from the outset, and an initiative by Campus France  enabled a list to be drawn up of courses that were open to foreign students without having to travel.
26 On 7 September, a circular, the main part already distributed in August, gave detailed and precise health instructions for universities and emphasised all the health aspects of the “Alert/Trace/Prevent & Protect” guidelines in force at the time. This time, social distancing was to be lateral, one metre or one seat between two people, which was obviously more pragmatic. Schools could then establish room-by-room “occupancy” capacities for the start of the school year. Masks, covid-test campaign, ventilation, cleaning, people management in premises, changed timetables: a host of instructions (this time, not just “recommendations”) so as to mobilise staff so term could start with fewer students in class. So this was a huge issue. In fact, the limited space available in classrooms was making it impossible to hold lessons with over twenty or so students (university classrooms can often fit 30 to 40 students), or even less for some universities, depending on layout. Moreover, using a larger number of rooms than usual was forcing universities to make choices. For example, three UVSQ branches chose to make face-to-face teaching the priority for newcomers, but by converting all lecture halls for seminars they could not hold lectures.
27 The start of the academic year was therefore difficult to organise, everywhere. Face-to-face teaching, demanded by both teachers and students, was only possible in small groups, depending on classroom size and availability. Teachers came up with and tried out “hybrid” methods – some students online and some in the classroom – which very quickly posed technical problems (insufficient bandwidth for video streaming), but also learning problems. This method was quickly abandoned in the ISM-IAE team, because teachers quickly realised they could not easily deal with students talking together in the classroom while dealing with others online, who were mostly on their own at home. In addition, video conferencing generally means the teacher remains static. So teachers had to teach groups whilst simultaneously following questions and comments online and hosting talks. This was very challenging for them and the students, too. In the end, trials showed that online students were often “neglected” in favour of those in attendance, especially since lessons were also based on interaction between attending students. So, after a few weeks getting to know students, many teachers, unable to accommodate everyone together, reverted to online learning. It was also not possible to split groups and hold multiple sessions, due to budgetary constraints, but also, in many cases, due to a lack of available teachers and premises during the pandemic.
28 Covid cases rapidly accelerated. In a 14 October interview, Emmanuel Macron announced a curfew in some “health emergency” zones, limited gatherings to six people, recommended wearing masks everywhere and working from home whenever possible . On 28 October, he noted the very serious deterioration and stated that his “responsibility is to protect all French people”. He announced a new lockdown, apart from schools that remained open , which allowed parents to continue working. So universities were in lockdown for students, from 30 October to 15 December, which represented most of the first semester.
29 Based on experience and results of the first lockdown, and its extension up to the end of the previous second semester, universities began improving their arrangements and, above all, took students’ circumstances into account.
30 UVSQ, like many universities, was still open and was improving its student aid schemes (to buy a laptop and 4G keys for connections), and gave everyone a Zoom licence (lecturers, students & administrative staff), after evaluating the different platforms used during the first lockdown. Courses now became smoother, better focussed and more popular (see Section 3).
31 Covid has highlighted the big issue of Internet access, which underpinned the government’s e-administration concerns. Students, like all people, need equipment and connections, but also training, as the “digital divide” is not entirely generational (Rouet, 2019). The pandemic has certainly helped ramp up both fibre-optic cable-laying particularly in urban areas and laptop possession. In 2019, an INSEE poll showed that “one in six people do not use the Internet, and more than one in three lack basic IT skills” , whereas in 2018, 82.3% of all households had a PC, 95.4% a mobile phone and 84.9% an Internet connection . Meanwhile, in 2019, only 2.4% of students did not use the Internet and 2.1% had no computer. The problem of online learning is much more related to connection bandwidth and availability of PCs which students often share with their families or other people where they live.
32 At UVSQ, as in many other universities, IT systems, over the Renater network, are not up to speed to ensure simultaneous video streaming.
33 Eventually, online learning worked much better with Zoom, Team or Meet  at both teachers’ and students’ homes, rather than in university premises. This observation prompted the authorities to wonder whether their big spend, focusing on more IT power rather than connection bandwidth over the years, had been worth it.
34 Universities tried to find solutions, quickly, often turning to private firms, to avoid the online learning , problem of not all students having Internet access, but this was only possible due to their management and action autonomy and to further powers granted in the summer of the pandemic.
35 On 28 October, President Macron addressed the people again giving a pandemic and healthcare overview. A “new phase” was announced from 28 November involving a more relaxed lockdown and a plan to reopen universities and “resume classes with […] all students attending”, so long as “the number of new cases remains below 5,000 per day”, which did not happen. A €150 grant was also announced for scholarship students as well as measures for “young people who cannot find an internship or first job”.
36 Some students did indeed undergo, and still undergo, financial difficulties that caused some to leave their student accommodation and return home, often far from their university. It is unlikely such students will return to campus. Internships, usually scheduled for second semester, have been tough to find, especially for undergraduates, and some universities chose to “freeze” them i.e. not count them in assessing a student’s year or degree. ISM-IAE, IUTM and most UVSQ branches did not go down this path but if it was impossible to find an internship working from home, an alternative job was offered (e.g. researching an upcoming issue, mini-thesis and so on).
37 The 30 October circular fleshed out the President’s announcements, “the rule is online learning: all teaching shall be delivered remotely, with some exceptions, and home working is the rule”, but higher education establishments remained open, therefore requiring staff to be physically present. By way of exception granted by the Rector , some courses could then take place face-to-face, while observing pre-defined rules. The CROUS (student services organisation) offered take-away meals, but without much take-up given very low attendance on campus.
38 It was not until 4 December, on Macron’s orders, that the government introduced new arrangements for the gradual resumption of teaching, formalised in the 19 December circular, just a few days before the Christmas holidays. The plan was to welcome students in small groups of no more than ten, by invitation, in particular for “the most vulnerable students”, new arrivals, those with disabilities, those who had dropped out of school, those with “digital insecurity” and also international students. Depending on “covid developments”, face-to-face tutorials for “first-year post-baccalaureate [A level] students” became possible, “up to 50% of classroom occupancy capacity”. As travel was regulated and a curfew in force, institutions had little incentive to try to accommodate students, especially as the subjects to be taught had first to be approved by the Rector’s Office . Moreover, student and teacher opinions had now to be taken into account, meaning that universities could not summon students for lessons, or even for continuous assessment, and had to accept that a teacher, as a precaution for themselves and others, would not wish to come and teach on campus.
39 During Emmanuel Macron’s New Year speech to the nation, he referred to the “students who have suffered and are still suffering more than others” and assured them of government support. On 21 January 2021, at a meeting in Saclay, he responded to the general student frustration about spending “six hours a day in front of a screen”, and promised a faster return to “face-to-face” learning, despite a still very worrying covid situation. “A student must have the same rights as an employee”, who can return to work, and therefore “if they need to”, students “must be able to return to university one day a week” . The next day, MESRI issued a circular updating former instructions and recommendations. Thus, “when the second semester starts, face-to-face teaching for all courses will be authorised with an online option, particularly for lectures, and on a progressive and limited basis”. “By 8 February at the latest, all universities will be allowed to teach up to 20% of their total student body in classrooms face-to-face, in accordance with the covid regulations in force at that time”, which corresponds to “the equivalent of one day’s attendance per week” for students. In addition, academic region Rectors must be informed of these “arrangements for organising the return to university”.
40 This interpretation of the President’s words i.e. turning one day per week into 20% (one day in five, 20% of the total student body), is interesting in that it did not in fact take into account the wishes of students themselves. Whilst the media were widely reporting on student difficulties and suffering, it is difficult to assess the proportion of students who really wanted to return to campus under these conditions, and what they wanted to do.
41 This circular had limited effect and teaching continued mostly online, except in the IUTs where engineering department teachers were keen to take advantage of this new rule, calculated on the total number of students (which therefore included all university departments largely using online learning) and were able to organise almost all practical course work on the curriculum.
42 There were other circulars specifying the rules for student and scientific mobility and for student internships (15 February). The education minister, worried about the “freezing” of internships in certain universities, emphasized that student internships were a priority insisting that even if online, they were “absolutely necessary for getting a degree and preparing students for a job.” Many universities had obviously not waited for this directive and, almost a year earlier, had already set up arrangements for student placements in the second semester of the previous year.
43 Other arrangements have enabled students to complete their full course of study. For example, completing the final year of a master’s programme in two years, plus a long internship outside lockdown periods during the following academic year, had been envisaged by some students who saw it as a better way of preparing for their future career. In the same vein, the 2019-2020 academic year was exceptionally extended until the end of December 2020, which enabled students to complete an internship with at least some face-to-face experience. This was later repeated for the 2020-2021 academic year.
44 Within the various university departments, management teams have tried to organise face-to-face teaching in line with government standards, especially in the first year where tutorials are organised in small groups. Otherwise, teaching has continued online, particularly taking into account students’ views, but some activities have continued on campus (student group work in particular).
45 On 1 March 2021, new instructions and recommendations, particularly covid-related, were specified to combat the spread of Covid variants (testing, care of the vulnerable, reinforcement of social distancing measures and ventilation, change of mask types and so on). It is easy to see how the directives improved over the period, with increasingly precise covid-related measures.
46 On 31 March 2021, President Macron – in the last of his speeches dealt with in our paper – recalled the “three principles” that guide government action: safety and protection of French people; a balanced approach which considers the consequences for everyone; and responsibility i.e. “trusting” in people’s social conscience. Measures were updated, but nothing changed for universities, except that they had to change their Easter holidays in line with schools, making them the same for all three national zones in April. Vaccination strategy was described at length, with the final choice (how much and how often according to age group) made by the government department. In a rare first, while the vaccine debate was raging, the President mentioned a “specific vaccination strategy” for teachers – “being the most exposed profession”, – but eventually the strategy was applied to all French people in May 2021.
47 On 3 April, another directive reiterated Macron’s announcements, indicating that no changes would be made to teaching, libraries or catering, something universities had become accustomed to. Face-to-face exams were forbidden, apart from exceptional cases and competitive (entry) exams. This directive, like the one issued after Macron’s meeting in Saclay, deserves a special mention as being of little value. But after a media campaign criticizing the absence of the Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation in January-February, it was obviously important to follow up each presidential address with a directive, even if it meant not having much to add to the President’s words.
48 Covid was obviously not over, and presidential announcements or important ministerial announcements still gave no specific or practical instructions for higher education establishments that were waiting (or not) for clarity and recommendations (just as early on in the pandemic) or else existing rules were extended immediately by a directive that attempted to apply the President’s words in practice. In October 2020, most French universities were only allowed to fill half their accommodation, and then this was reduced to 20% and the Minister in charge announced, in a free daily Paris newspaper, that “students could have 50% face-to-face learning from mid-May or end-May” , something that would have little impact since most university courses were already over. The government website stated that from 19 May for higher education, the restriction was “reduced” to “50% of students” . Universities were waiting for any directive before that date… without knowing whether or not it applied to voluntary attendance: this is the most difficult instruction or directive to introduce: organising face-to-face teaching with limited accommodation capacity while satisfying students’ wishes!
2 – Students and remote learning
49 After the section about “top-down” directives and recommendations and their consequent reactions, this next section deals with student feelings and perceptions. This is very necessary because of the voluntary nature of political decisions made about French higher education. Certainly, the health and organisational aspects were important for students who were anxious not only about getting their degree, but also about the quality of learning. In fact, quality is inherent in how we think about higher education and the roles of students and teachers.
50 We need to bear in mind that students are a mixed population, with a variety of situations to be considered: foreign or local students, sandwich course students or following a traditional course and so on.
51 Whereas the media has portrayed students mainly as covid victims – instability, poverty, isolation, lack of internships – university staff have observed striking contrasts, particularly with regard to internships. Indeed, thanks to support and funding that come with internships, student placement has been much better than in previous years at ISM-IAE, where two-thirds of the 1,200 students are interns.
52 An online poll was carried out among all ISM-IAE students to gauge their support for the solutions to the problems of isolation reported in the media, following lockdown and Macron’s announcement about letting students attend face-to-face classes one day a week (or up to 20% of occupancy capacity). Out of 854 respondents (that is 90% of students contacted) , of whom 82% were interns, 62% were in favour of a partial return to campus, while 10% expressed a mixed opinion. Whilst the proportion of students not in favour was the same among interns and students on “traditional” courses, by contrast far fewer BA undergraduates, HR students (interns) and cultural and artistic management course students were against returning, which can certainly be partly put down to their profiles and partly to difficulties encountered by BA undergraduates on technical courses.
53 Since more than 70% of students were reluctant, or had mixed thoughts, on a partial return, and everyone’s opinions and wishes had to be considered, including the teachers who were mainly of the same opinion, courses mostly continued online. However, some activities could, at students’ request, be carried out on campus. The survey also gives us an insight into the reasons for students’ choices. Three balanced types of reasons were given: practical – students had moved or made arrangements for lockdown away from the university; health & safety – students not wishing to take public transport or mix with people due to infection risk; learning – students who considered that conditions did not allow them to get the full benefit of courses and that online learning arrangements were quite satisfactory.
54 In view of this observation, which is very different from generally reported stories spread by the media and social media about big difficulties encountered by students, we initially decided to take into account student opinions (and that of teachers and administrative staff); and so a complementary study was carried out as part of a European project , in order to gauge in greater detail student feelings and experiences with regard to online learning.
55 The objective was not so much to take a measure of how many people took part in online learning as to obtain feedback about it. We did this poll under the Q-methodology developed by McKeown and Thomas (2013). This involves a qualitative approach to measuring participants’ perceptions and feelings combined with quantitative data analysis thereof. The aim is to use such data to study the complexity of participants’ attitudes. The first phase of this study between November 2020 and January 2021 consisted of analysing what the media were saying about online learning (in several European countries) and setting up a focus group with about twenty IUTM students. The results were transformed into 64 statements which were then submitted for ranking to 34 ISM-IAE Master’s students. A factor breakdown of the rankings (and not of the statements) enabled us to pinpoint 3 main views shared by our respondents.
56 The first view highlights social interactions that are necessary and considered essential for higher education. Learning is a tw0-way process between teachers and students, especially for sandwich course students. Relations between students, especially informal ones, also enable social groups to form and underline socialising aspects of the learning process.
57 The social isolation caused by online learning has taken an even heavier toll on those students who, during Covid, often found themselves alone and deprived of contact with their family and friends. Isolation during Covid has been widely reported in the media.
58 What is more surprising in this view is students prefer socialising over remote learning. For example, digital tools are generally praised for being great levellers when it comes to geographical and social distancing or helping everyone get on together. However, under this first view, working remotely is not seen to help social interaction and contacts. It is apparently impossible to break down relationship structures imposed either by universities (teachers-students) or by inter-personal dynamics. Lastly, and equally counter-intuitively, this view does not consider geographical freedom to be vital in a good university education. So, the right solution for online learning does not lie in helping teachers use digital tools better, but in developing a mix of teaching methods with a focus on face-to-face teaching.
59 The second view praises technology. Geographical and organisational freedom, preferably without time constraints, is key here. All tech functionalities seem to add value – chat, asynchronous and so on. Negative results seem to be non-existent or irrelevant. Under this view, teaching is presented not as a social and educational two-way process (see view 1), but rather as a one-way information flow. Therefore, the teacher can be summed up as a technical tool for facilitating information retrieval (surely they can do better!). The “university” screen is confused with a mere media screen, competes with other content producers and is only one content source among many. Under this view, “consumption” of “scientific” content is not collective, but is similar to that of mass media, where social interaction does not seem to play an important role. This view refers to a particular student opinion, which can be related to respondents’ age or educational level.
View 1, Technology increases distance
|Students find it difficult to concentrate for long periods in front of a screen.||5|
|Online teaching causes student passivity.||4|
|I feel locked in and isolated when I work online.||4|
|It is difficult for teachers to inspire and motivate students online.||3|
|During online courses students are tempted to do other things, such as play games, or look at social media.||3|
|The lack of informal communication with classmates makes learning more difficult.||2|
|It is difficult to engage in debate and discussion online.||2|
|Online teaching is difficult for teachers because they have to adapt to a different set of technical skills.||2|
|Online learning is very convenient as we can access courses from almost anywhere.||1|
|E-learning can only complement face-to-face learning.||1|
|Whether the content is spoken, video or audio, in an online course it is a mistake to make subjects too long.||1|
|I am often overwhelmed by the amount of content streaming onto my computer.||0|
|E-learning is more appropriate for the current generation of students, for whom technology is core to their daily lives.||0|
|When I don’t get an answer in a live online course, I feel very uncomfortable.||0|
|The great strength of e-learning is that it eliminates geographical distance, including between countries.||0|
|The real advantage of an online course is that it allows teachers and students to connect with each other wherever they are.||0|
|People who are learning find it easier to respond to speakers when they do not have to look them in the face or communicate verbally (rather than writing).||-1|
|Online courses are better for learning new skills rather than for acquiring knowledge.||-1|
|The challenges of e-learning mean that teachers are better prepared, which improves education quality.||-1|
|Online learning provides a good international experience for students with lectures from other countries.||-1|
|Too many teachers lack confidence in front of the camera.||-1|
|I like online assessment as it removes subjective bias such as an examiner’s interpretation of body language or tone of voice.||-2|
|Online teaching is very useful for slow learners and shy students because they do not have to interact with many people.||-2|
|The chat option is very useful, as it allows all students to participate in discussions, rather than just those who shout loudest.||-2|
|It is less intimidating for students to get feedback from teachers online, rather than face to face.||-2|
|In an online course I don’t feel any pressure from other students.||-3|
|I like e-learning because it is easier to ask questions and discuss with my colleagues.||-4|
|Remote learning creates a feeling of solidarity among students.||-4|
|There is a better relationship between the teacher and students when online.||-5|
View 1, Technology increases distance
60 Continuing education for managers, in particular, has suffered greatly due to the pandemic, with many courses cancelled, as most trainees have not wanted such training and demand a different approach.
View 2, Long live technology
|E-learning is great because I save so much time and the stress caused by travelling.||5|
|Online learning is very convenient, as we can access courses from almost anywhere.||4|
|Online courses are much more convenient as we can organise our time as we wish.||4|
|The chat option is very useful, as it allows all students to participate in discussions, rather than just those who shout loudest.||3|
|Whether content is spoken, video or audio, it is a mistake to make subjects too long.||3|
|Just in case of any Internet connection failures, courses should be recorded for later viewing||3|
|E-learning is more appropriate for the current generation of students for whom technology is core to their daily lives.||2|
|The challenges of e-learning mean that teachers are better prepared, which improves education quality.||2|
|Online teaching is best when students listen to a lecture.||2|
|Students find it difficult to concentrate for long periods in front of a screen.||1|
|During online teaching, students are tempted to do other things, such as play games, or look at social media.||1|
|E-learning is great because it gives access to many speakers and experts on a given topic.||1|
|Listening to someone talk online can be very boring.||1|
|In an online course, I don’t feel any pressure from other students.||0|
|It is less intimidating for students to get feedback from teachers online, rather than face to face.||0|
|It is difficult for teachers to inspire and motivate students online.||0|
|Everything that can be done in a classroom can be done online, sometimes more efficiently.||0|
|E-learning is not suitable for subjects that involve experiments or practical activities.||0|
|Online teaching creates a better working relationship and exchange of ideas between teachers||0|
|Online courses are better for learning new skills rather than for acquiring knowledge.||-1|
|E-learning reduces the quality of teacher-student interaction.||-1|
|The cost of e-learning means that it is not accessible to all; it widens the digital divide and reinforces inequalities.||-1|
|It is difficult to engage in debate and discussion online.||-2|
|I am often overwhelmed by the volume of content that is streaming into my computer.||-2|
|There is a better relationship between the teacher and students online.||-2|
|I feel locked in and isolated when I work online.||-3|
|Working online at home is difficult because of all the interruptions and distractions from family and friends.||-3|
|It takes longer to understand lesson content when you work online.||-3|
|It is difficult to find good quality online help.||-3|
|Working online from home requires a lot of organisation and planning.||-4|
|I don’t find it more stressful to do an online exam than a paper exam.||-5|
View 2, Long live technology
61 In the third view, there is no standpoint for-or-against distance learning, learning is seen as both a collective achievement and an individual’s retention of information. We therefore need to consider all possible options. Fatigue and discomfort seem to be important, but digital tools can facilitate organisation of learning. This view rejects certain stereotypes: the current generation is not more attracted to remote learning because it draws on social media extensively; online courses do not necessarily have to emphasise form at the expense of content in order to maintain students’ attention; online learning is not necessarily more convenient just because it does away with geographic distance.
62 This view, which is certainly a minority one, stands out from the two previous ones that have been widely circulated in the French public arena. The third view proposes a new interpretation, in which it is not a question of pitching the content and form of remote learning against face-to-face teaching, but rather to rise above the practical issues, considering that remote learning finally offers new forms of expression and social relationships which can be enlarged or reshaped by face-to-face teaching.
View 3, Distance learning as a contingency
|Students find it difficult to concentrate for long periods in front of a screen.||5|
|I am often overwhelmed by the volume of content that is streaming onto my computer.||4|
|During online courses students are tempted to do other things, such as play games, or look at social media.||4|
|It is less intimidating for students to get feedback from teachers online, rather than face to face.||3|
|In an online course I don’t feel any pressure from other students.||2|
|There is a better relationship between the teacher and the students when online.||2|
|The chat option is very useful, as it allows all students to participate in discussions, rather than just those who shout loudest.||1|
|An online course must be interactive, encouraging student participation if it is to be successful.||1|
|I feel locked in and isolated when I work online.||0|
|The challenges of e-learning mean that teachers are better prepared, which improves education quality.||0|
|It is particularly important when teaching online that lecturers are trained to speak in an engaging way.||0|
|Whether the content is spoken, video or audio, in an online course it is not a mistake to make the subjects too long.||-1|
|It is difficult for teachers to inspire and motivate students online.||-2|
|Online learning is very convenient, as we can access courses from almost anywhere.||-2|
|E-learning is more appropriate for the current generation of students for whom technology is core to their daily lives.||-3|
|Online courses are better for learning new skills rather than for acquiring knowledge.||-3|
|A range of media must be used in an online course if it is to be effective.||-3|
|It is difficult to engage in debate and discussion online.||-5|
View 3, Distance learning as a contingency
63 In higher education as elsewhere, covid measures introduced have emptied campuses (often completely), closed libraries, disrupted exchange programmes, done away with international student and researcher mobility, eliminated face-to-face lectures and scientific meetings, limited social interaction, and prevented most social and cultural activities. This is certainly one of the biggest crises in the recent history of university education, putting paid to many aspects of university life.
64 It has rendered usual forms of communication impossible, which are essential for teaching, but also for research and university management. Social distancing obviously hurts negotiations, changes teacher/pupil relations and how professionals interact.
65 Online chatrooms and alternative communication spaces have been introduced, particularly at home, to seek ongoing teaching and organisational “continuity”. Many commentators have praised these arrangements as a way of avoiding long, expensive and environmentally-unfriendly travel, and as a way of better managing people’s work-life balance. After more than a year of using such distance learning techniques, euphoria over the Internet’s power has lost its lustre, as can be seen from the above analysis of online learning views. Analysing situations or having a more mature view of digital technology is perhaps a result of wider acceptance, which makes it lose its novelty appeal, but also leads to awareness of overestimated advantages of working online, and to the untenability of a tech-centric stance that the pandemic and its resulting isolation make all the more difficult to accept.
66 The pandemic and how it has been managed, particularly in universities, have put online advantages and disadvantages into perspective. The experience of lockdown, closing institutions to the public and the scarcity of public transport, has certainly made everyone more aware of the limitations of working online: a digital university is not a desirable goal as part of a new, inclusive and responsible world. Teachers generally consider that reducing students to little Zoom screen boxes hinders their work. The same is true of students when online, who feel frustrated by the group, place and overall feeling, except when they look up facts. However, cutting out the daily commute may also be a chance to ease public transport congestion, particularly in the Paris (Île-de-France) region. Hence, next year IUTM will trial one day-a-week online learning for all courses and this will also be extended, on a voluntary basis, to ISM-IAE courses.
67 Whilst learning only carried on due to the Internet that will continue to be used, the need for “physical attendance” (Steiner, 1991) has become crystal clear, particularly in the search for meaning. Online education at least is no longer seen as magic. Digital has fallen from its geeky-tech pedestal and remote learning is no longer viewed as a substitute for the interpersonal aspects of genuine teaching (Tricot, 2021). In the same vein, university may have become more real for everyone in attendance, with its building, rooms, keys and so on, because all this had temporarily disappeared.
68 There is a strong temptation to promote online teaching as being as effective at the end of the day as face-to-face teaching, to carry on with protective measures taken during the pandemic, and keep premises closed and students and teachers distanced. Cost arguments can also be brought into play, and the cost savings in terms of premises, maintenance, student management and so on. But a bricks and mortar university in a country cannot be virtual. Universities are like cathedrals, places with a sense of being.
69 If universities have adapted, despite contradictory directives and stakeholder expectations that are not always properly understood, it is because the pandemic and resulting lockdowns have allowed people to refocus on fundamental issues, why universities exist, and the conditions necessary to achieve core goals. University is above all a place to live, exchange ideas and add to collective innovation.
For example, PEEP, a state school parents federation, has had weekly information meetings with Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer during the pandemic (Source: PEEP website, [URL: http://peep.asso.fr/peep/assets/File/covid19crisesanitairecomPEEP080420.pdf]).
The authors of this paper found, during talks they attended at other branches, that the situation there was much the same as other French IAEs and IUTs [business administration and technology].
He used it 25 times in the 9 speeches we analysed.
Campus France – the French Agency for the promotion of higher education, international student services, and international mobility.
On 2 November, the President gave a solemn message for the start of the school year, following the murder of a secondary school teacher by an Islamic fundamentalist and a covid update. He urged students to wear a mask and use the TousAntiCovid smartphone app.
See [URL: https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/4241397].
The teachers of ISM-IAE abandoned the use of the BlackBoard Collaborate platform which does not enable the display of more than a few students on screen unlike the other systems mentioned.
On this point, see the synthesis proposed by Jean-François Lucas on [URL: https://www.sciencespo.fr/public/chaire-numerique/2020/10/26/covid19-et-fractures-numeriques-jf-lucas/].
The Rector (Recteur) is head of a national education region.
Three weeks elapsed between submission of the subjects concerned (mainly workshop work) and their validation by the Rector’s Office (le Rectorat). The UVSQ President had to insist before the Rectorat would validate the requests from the two IUT*s at UVSQ. (*University Institutes of Technology - IUT].
Students in continuing education or at off-site locations were not included in the scope of the survey.
The Eurasia project, [URL: https://eurasiaproject.eu/author/uni-sofia/], a multi-country study in progress. This contribution only refers to the results from French students.