A look at many of the different questions students have asked and what we should be asking.
As a new academic year begins, and we all adapt to the new normal of University, many still feel confused about what this year will look like. We decided to find out the answers to the questions on most students’ minds by reaching out to the University’s chief operating officer, David Duncan, in the hope of gaining some clarity.
The University has yet to announce exact numbers, but very few will actually have any physical interaction with teachers this year. “Blended learning” was the early message, but it now appears most students will be learning exclusively remotely. Admittedly, no one was expecting lectures to go on, but many were under the impression that small tutorials would be able to go forth. Many teachers and departments, who even up to last year refused to record lectures or have online teaching, have all agreed to remote learning. However, it appears that the University has reserved face-to-face learning exclusively for very few students.
When asked about how the University would ensure that students felt they were getting their money’s worth through online teaching, Mr Duncan responded: “We don’t tend to look at our academic provision in terms of giving people their money’s worth.” He expanded: “We tend to think about how best to deliver particular courses and programmes to make sure that the academic content and the quality of the course is sound, and that it is delivered in the best possible way.”
It is unclear whether Mr Duncan’s hope for satisfaction will be strong enough to stop students feeling shortchanged. His response does beg the question as to whether online teaching is considered the “best possible way” to deliver content, when remote learning certainly wasn’t favoured before. A recent NatWest Student Living Index reported that only 28% of Glasgow students find value in online education.
When further asked about the possibility of refund or reduced tuition, Mr Duncan gave this response: “We haven’t given that too much thought at this stage. As long as we can deliver academic programs through a blended learning approach, or indeed remotely, and we are confident that the same content is being covered and the quality of the course can be maintained, then that wouldn’t be something that we would consider.” From Mr Duncan’s response, students should not be expecting any financial compensation despite the potential limiting of their student experience.
He went on to say that he did not believe that this year would diminish the quality of education, arguing: “We will be applying the same academic standards and I think, more so than ever, academics have been thinking very carefully about the way that the courses are designed and how they can best be delivered to offer, not just in terms of quality, but also variety.”
After last year’s strikes, many have wondered what next year will look like in terms of staff and teaching relations. With issues from last year still unresolved, it has been asked if further industrial action is likely to occur. Additionally, there have been concerns about staff contracts if the Covid-19 situation persists, after the University decided to not renew many graduate teaching assistant contracts during lockdown.
There is an anticipated decline in numbers of both domestic students and international students, which the University used to justify in the non-renewals of the graduate teaching assistants, claiming there is less work to be done. International students in particular play a large role in the University finances, paying much higher fees than RUK students. The decline of international students might put the University in a precarious position.
However, the University has made clear that they will try to do everything to keep staff, with Mr Duncan stating: “We’ve given a guarantee to staff that we will do everything we can to avoid compulsory redundancies as a consequence of Covid-19. So far, touch wood, we haven’t had to resort to compulsory redundancies, so there haven’t been dismissals as a consequence of Covid so far. Obviously, we’ve got to protect the University’s financial position, but at the moment, it’s reasonably strong.”
The University has confirmed negotiations with the University and College Union (UCU) are ongoing nationally and that they are participating in those discussions. The University has confirmed that they do have a plan if there is more industrial action. Mr Duncan added: “We have some outstanding plans in place on how we respond to industrial action […] We always maintain close contact with local representatives of trade unions and we always offer a view in national consultations as well, depending on whether the issue is still pay, pensions, or conditions. Usually, the University of Glasgow is on the side of conciliation, we don’t like disputes.”
Coronavirus has placed extreme financial strain on many students, and whilst it does not look likely the University will be offering reduced tuition or refunds any time soon, the University will be providing financial support for students in other ways.
In March, the University launched the Student Hardship Fund in order to support students cover their rent payments, basic food expenses, and heating bills. The Hardship Fund provides one-off emergency financial support, which means they are unable to meet basic living costs on a short-term basis. Since its launch, the fund has provided £2m in financial support to over 2,600 students.
As of Monday 21 September, students will be able to apply for financial support for the academic year. Application forms will be posted online closer to the time. International and EU students will be able to apply to the Hardship Fund, with UK students being able to apply for living cost support via the Discretionary and Childcare Funds.
From putting tissues under your mask to stop your glasses fogging up, to singing happy birthday twice in your head, we’ve all made adjustments to the way we operate. But, what measures will be expected of us when we return to University?
Mr Duncan explains that over the course of lockdown, the University has been doing a “stack” of work to ensure the campus is safe for staff and students to return. He advises that signage will be on the ground, on doors, and all throughout campus. Sanitising stations have cropped up across campus, all stocked with hand gel. Staff and students will be reminded through induction programmes prior to their return to campus about how to keep safe.
When asked whether students or staff will be penalised for ignoring the guidelines, Mr Duncan explained that they are not expecting to need to use conduct procedures, but they exist as a last resort. He clarified: “The assumption is that people will understand the rules for their own safety and the safety of others and we fully expect that people will abide by them without the need for sanction.”
Should a second lockdown be imposed on the nation, the University has a plan in place, maintaining contact with other universities as well as the Scottish government to ensure they are following the correct course of action.
Currently, the University is unsure whether the second semester will be online only. The University supports the government’s “cautious” approach to the virus, but is “poised to take advantage of whatever loosening of the restrictions is applied by the government”. However, as Mr Duncan said: “But, you know, who knows.”
University can be an anxiety-inducing place without a pandemic to contend with, so it is crucial the University have a strong support system for their new and existing students. The National Union of Students (NUS) has warned: “Students are going to be returning with new renewed feelings of anxiety, isolation, loneliness, more specifically when it comes to Covid-19, grief.”
The University is “acutely conscious” of the necessity for strong student support over the next academic year, explaining they intend to build upon their already “fairly robust set of supports to address those who particularly need help with mental health and wellbeing”. Mr Duncan explained some of the provisions being taken, for example, there is currently no waitlist for counselling and psychological services. He added that they have increased staffing levels in these departments and adopted a new “triage method” to deal with mental health issues more quickly. He expressed that the University is “in a much better place in terms of mental health and wellbeing support for students than [it’s] been in the past”.
Mr Duncan concluded that: “There is a risk. Let’s be honest, there is a risk that with people studying remotely for the bulk of their time that people do become isolated and we have to make sure that there is regular contact with all students and with all staff to to try to counteract that, but also through interesting and exciting and enjoyable things that people can get engaged in.”
IT support will be crucial. While last year had some early bumps in the road, most were learning the new software. The servers and software served better than anticipated. This year though students will have extra accommodations in order to make remote learning more accessible. Mr Duncan explains: “There will be some students that we recognise who may struggle financially to have access to a kit, and then we can support individuals who need access to, for example, laptop systems and so on so that they can access the IT system remotely.”
There is some concern that there might not be enough IT staff to address the likely influx of new problems. The University has not hired additional staff, but said that it feels confident in the reporting system they have set up and believes that they are able to deal with the increased workload in a timely manner. For updated information on the virus and its impact on campus, follow our liveblog available on our website, as well as the University’s announcements at: www.gla.ac.uk/coronavirus