The U-turn follows statements from Ashley Bloomfield about expectations under current Covid-19 settings and outcry among students, writes Cameron Leakey.
The University of Auckland has reversed a decision to return to on-campus teaching next Monday. It follows statements yesterday by the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, which questioned the university class size limit of 300 students and complaints from students and some staff.
In an email to staff this morning, Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater said Ministry of Education guidelines did not place limits on the size of gatherings at tertiary education organisations, but that Bloomfield had made it clear that there were different expectations for the university at the current Auckland settings, informally known as “alert level 2.5”. the director general said yesterday that he expected gatherings at the university must be limited to groups of 10.
The university, New Zealand’s largest tertiary education provider, now plans to continue in online learning mode for a further fortnight, with the possibility of resuming teaching on campus on Monday October 5.
In an email to staff and students on Monday, Freshwater outlined the university’s plan to resume on-campus teaching on Monday September 21. All classes with 300 or fewer students would resume as normal, with lectures of more than 300 remaining online, complemented by on-campus assessments. One-metre physical distancing was to be applied where possible, and students and staff were encouraged to wear masks.
The plan was met with outrage and anxiety from students. They took to Facebook pages such as Overheard @ University of Auckland, UoA Meaningful Confessions, and the comment sections of the students’ association and student publication Craccum to express disappointment with the university’s decision. Many said they felt the university was potentially endangering students by mandating a return to campus when Covid-19 cases continued to emerge in the community.
All assessments scheduled for the next two weeks will now be held online. However, student concerns remain round on-campus tests and examinations planned for later in the semester. The university says tests and examinations will be able to take place on campus with few if any changes, as physical distancing of students during assessments is already commonplace. However, some students have questioned the safety of examinations, with concern about adequate distancing, entry in and out of exam rooms, and whether masks may be mandated.
Those who are unwell or have extraordinary circumstances will be able to apply for aegrotat or compassionate consideration. The university usually charges for this (between $30 to $50 for each application) but has decided to waive the fee for this semester, after students argued it would disincentivise students from avoiding tests and exams when sick or unwell.
Students who are studying overseas will continue to sit assessments online. These online assessments will be similar to the online final assessments that all students sat in place of exams during semester one.
Auckland University Student’s Association (AUSA) had been in consultation with the university, acting as a conduit between the senior leadership team and students regarding the potential return to campus. On Tuesday, AUSA publicly encouraged students to email the vice chancellor to voice their concerns. “Despite our best efforts to engage with the university in good faith, our concerns and the concerns of the thousands of students who have signed petitions have not been properly heard,” the acting president of AUSA, Emma Rogers, told Craccum before this morning’s announcement. She says now that AUSA is “working with the university over what to do next and making sure the student voices are being heard by the university”.
In March this year, the University entered a “Teaching Free Week” beginning March 23 to allow staff to prepare for the possibility of online learning if required. On March 25, New Zealand entered alert level four lockdown, and teaching resumed online the following week. A 5% grade bump was introduced to all taught courses for semester one to compensate for the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Students are now calling on the university to instate a flexible approach to teaching, where both online and in-person teaching may be utilised. Students are also advocating for a 5% grade bump this semester to compensate for the disruption caused by the pandemic.
The university told Craccum earlier this week that the 300-person limit had been chosen as it allowed for social distancing considering the university’s facilities.
A spokesperson said the university needed to return to in-person teaching for some courses. Degrees such as medicine, pharmacy, engineering, and science required time in university facilities to learn essential skills, they said.
Cameron Leakey is co-editor of Craccum.