Have we done enough?

Arianne Zajac

 

 
University Responses to the Coronavirus 
 A Student’s perspective  

As the clock struck twelve on December 31st bringing in the New Year, while we all celebrated with our family and friends, no one could have expected what 2020 would have in store for us all. Since the Coronavirus has hit Europe, our lives have been turned upside down, as we all find ourselves in varying degrees of social isolation and national lockdowns. Consequently, universities have closed and students are now bearing the brunt of a new online, distant education.

Now more than ever, is a time of uncertainty. The student body is spread across the globe, which creates feelings of uprootedness and disconnection. Many people who are isolated have begun to feel the emotional and mental strain of the lockdowns. The usual busy, social, and communicative lives we used to live seem a distant memory. Nevertheless, people are finding that work is still at the centre of their lives with little space for them to think about the best ways to deal with the pandemic.

It is precisely for these reasons that our universities should step forward and take the lead. They should be at the forefront of students’ lives, providing support and stability. However, for most students, this does not seem to be the case. It appears that in the Netherlands, universities are following a “business as usual” model. The University of Amsterdam’s weekly updates mainly focuses on how courses, exams, and assessments have moved online. However, there is no information surrounding what is truly important to students – the impact this will have on our education.

 

“…people are finding that work is still at the centre of their lives with little space for them to think about the best ways to deal with the pandemic.”

 

There is no doubt that we are receiving a lower quality of education. What were once valued contact hours, are now reduced to little more than a quick Zoom call with larger class sizes. Students find themselves without resources attempting to write longer, more important papers that have come to replace exams, which typically follow at the end of each block. When asked, a student from Utrecht University responded with a similar scenario; all classes are being prepared to be taught online but expectations in terms of workload and engagement seem to have stayed the same. 

 

“There is no information surrounding what is truly important to students – the impact this will have on our education.”

Universities have all responded differently to the crisis. Students in Spain have complained of an increased workload, as their tutors had assumed that they now have more time to complete their work. Nevertheless, this fails to take into account the fact that students are dealing with their own mental health, their families, and of course the very real possibility of sickness. Thus, many do not have a suitable place to concentrate on their education at home. 

Some universities, on the other hand, seem to be getting things right. In the UK, the University of Sheffield, has offered students a “safety net,” meaning students will not receive a grade lower than their average grade score of that year. 

Policies like these are important, they acknowledge students are most likely not going to produce their best work, but they do not undermine the importance of continuing with university education. It takes the pressure off students and, if anything, allows them to produce work to the best of their ability in light of the current situation.

It is commendable that the Netherlands has scrapped the Binding Study Advice (BSA) for all first years, but if this is the only measure they will take, they are overlooking students who are further into their degree and may be struggling.

We see more and more in academia a high pressure drive to constantly produce work, pushing students, professors, and PhD students into burnouts. Even during a health crisis, some universities are incapable of turning this pressure down, forcing students to perform in the same way, seeming to try and optimize isolation rather than checking in with their students. Nobody has asked for this time off, nobody has asked for a global pandemic. This isn’t a luxurious writing retreat that we have all found ourselves on or the perfect opportunity to cross off all those tasks on our lists we’ve been meaning to do. It is a time in which everyone is under great strain. Any measures universities should be taking during this time should be in the best interest of our health and wellbeing, not primarily tailored to our grades.

Now, why should we be calling on our universities to increase their efforts in supporting students? After all, the University of Amsterdam, as well as the majority of universities, have been sending out weekly updates and reaching out to international students. I am sure all our tutors are understanding and will take into account the situation, but that is not enough. If anything, the different university responses have shown us is that there is much variation, some for worse and some for better. But what we need is a standardised response across all faculties, so students have the peace of mind that the university is working with them, that they can do their best, and that fairness and equality spread across the faculties.

 

First published Online. April 2020. Volume 15, Issue 3. Painting titled “Business as usual” by Susanne Lund Pangrazio (2018)