'Disabled students are left to assume that the University does not care about their concerns, that accessibility is not a priority and that things will always be this way.'PHOTO CREDIT: SIMON LOCK

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the gaping flaws in the traditional Cambridge education:  its ‘romantic’ facade of antiquity has fallen away to reveal an old-fashioned University ill-equipped to support students through what was  for many the most challenging exam term of their academic career. Failure to make contact hours accessible to disabled students before the pandemic left Cambridge on the back foot this term, now that remote teaching has become a necessity for all students. It is shocking that one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, itself partaking in pioneering research into the virus, could have refused for so long to implement a simple lecture capture system.

Yet for disabled students, this is not a surprise. Able-bodied as I am, my mental illness has frequently made it difficult or impossible to attend vital contact hours, and without a lecture capture system in place, it is incredibly difficult to catch up on missed content. Permission to record can be acquired via the DRC, but since panic attacks rarely give advance notice, this is often logistically impossible, and even if it is, the burden of admin rests decidedly on the student. The University was one of the first to announce its 2021 lectures will be online, but virtual lectures must continue to be an option for all faculties once the COVID-19 contagion risk has subsided. Relying on notes from friends and the temperament of your lecturer is not the education for which we pay at least £9,250 a year.

"Disabled students are left to assume that the University does not care about their concerns..."

Attending lectures in person is obviously preferable, but this can be expensive and massively inconvenient for disabled students not at central colleges who are not able to cycle. Studying at Homerton, it is glaringly obvious to me that the U-Bus in its current state does not provide fair access to lecture sites for all students. In 2016 its services were withdrawn from Homerton, bypassing the college completely to make use of a new busway, and it has never served Girton. Henry Wright of the Homerton Union of Students and members of Girton JCR have spent most of their degrees fighting for their colleges to be included, but the latest survey detailed multiple route options serving neither college. 

Even for students who have no issues accessing lectures in person, the consistent refusal of most university faculties to record lectures can cause problems. This year my choice of papers meant a regular clash between a lecture and a class, both organised by the same faculty. In order to access the content, every week for two terms, I had to fill out a new form obtaining permission to record from the relevant lecturer, who changed weekly due to the nature of the paper. Even then, I had to find a friend to cycle in and record each lecture, as I was told repeatedly that it would not be possible for the lecturer to record themselves. This system is clearly ineffectual and absurd, so why should it be allowed to continue?

Some reasons given in the past for not making lectures available online include concerns from lecturers about delivering sensitive content, and being replaced by re-runs of their lectures in what has been dubbed by some as the “Netflixisation of academia”. These are both legitimate concerns, but neither are insurmountable – both could be resolved with a contract which protects lecturers rights over the use of recordings of their own teaching. There are also concerns that putting lectures online could reduce attendance, but in its analysis of 34 different studies, Panopto found that “faltering attendance is exceptionally uncommon”. Furthermore, a Newcastle University survey found that disabled students and those struggling financially are only students who prefer recording to attending lectures in person. 

Given the above, and assuming that, for one of the world’s richest universities, financing a lecture capture system is not the issue, then what is? Disabled students are left to assume that the University does not care about their concerns, that accessibility is not a priority and that things will always be this way. Students like me, whose attendance is affected by mental illness, are left feeling the University doesn’t want to help them to succeed. Like any university, ableism is omnipresent in the history of Cambridge; it claims to want to move beyond this. These claims mean nothing as long as lectures remain inaccessible to disabled students.


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A clear solution to lecture accessibility is already in the works. As reported by Varsity in January the University was planning to offer all faculties the chance to take part in a lecture capture trial in three phases, even before the crisis hit. Some faculties such as Biochemistry have already been taking part in a pilot version of the scheme, but all faculties must now commit to taking part in this trial when face-to-face teaching resumes. Accessing lectures online was a necessity of which disabled students were deprived before the crisis, and will continue to be needed whenever the current crisis comes to an end. 

When the dust settles and university life returns to some semblance of normal, we must all join the voices of disabled students who have been asking for simple access arrangements for years – we must demand that our faculties take part in the lecture recording scheme. One paper released in May 2018, long before the pandemic hit, suggested that at the time up to 80% of UK universities were using lecture recording technology. Cambridge was not one of them. The University has a great history of innovation, so why shouldn’t it follow the vast majority of UK universities and allow all students to access lectures online long into the future?