As tertiary institutions round the halfway mark of semester two, The Spinoff spoke to students and their universities about how they’re adapting to the changes wrought by the pandemic.
With New Zealand’s alert levels confirmed to be shifting down this week, we’re edging closer to something approaching normality. But what does it mean for university students?
The whole country, excluding Auckland, will move from level two to level one at midnight tonight, with Auckland shifting down from what’s been termed “level 2.5” to level two proper – including gathering limits of 100, rather than 10 – at midnight on Wednesday.
Last week, the University of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest tertiary education provider, announced a plan to move back to campus today, with lectures of up to 300 students. The decision was quickly criticised by staff, students and the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield. Feelings were running so high that the Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) had to put out a statement condemning personal attacks on the vice chancellor, Dawn Freshwater.
The University of Auckland attributed its decision to level two guidelines released by the Ministry of Education which said “gathering limits” did not apply to education-related activities on a tertiary education organisation’s (TEO) campus, nor were there size restrictions on lectures. But Bloomfield queried the decision when asked about it by media on Wednesday, which created a “degree of confusion“, Freshwater said, and ultimately led to a U-turn: learning will now remain online only until October 2.
Students across the country have been cautiously adapting to the various changes made to their learning all year. As well as uncertainty around whether lectures will be on campus or online, there’s been worry about the impact Covid-19 disruptions have had on their academic performance, and the uncertainty over whether on-campus exams will go ahead.
Neither the University of Auckland, the University of Canterbury nor the University of Otago have committed to an exam format yet, but Victoria, Waikato, Massey, Lincoln and AUT have largely ruled out in-person exams regardless of the alert level, instead opting for online exams and take-home assessments.
The Ministry of Education is not offering guidance on the most appropriate form of assessment, as tertiary organisations “manage their own exams and assessments, in general without government involvement”, it says. But education providers “should always be in a position to transition to fully remote learning as soon as possible”.
Here’s how the different universities are planning to tackle the rest of the year.
The University of Auckland (40,000+ students)
Online learning is continuing for two weeks until Friday October 2, regardless of alert levels. However, the campus is open, with contact tracing procedures, mask use, hand sanitiser and signs promoting social distancing.
Vice chancellor Dawn Freshwater said the original decision to move completely back onto campus followed discussions with students who reported feeling unmotivated, had difficulties engaging with online learning and missed the social aspects of university, as well as the unsuitability of practical courses for online teaching.
Talking to The Spinoff, a second-year University of Auckland medical student said they had mixed feelings about the potential move back on campus. While glad to be able to practise clinical skills again, the student was “worried about the potential risk I could pose to my immunocompromised older parents”.
AUSA acting president Emma Rogers said the student association had been actively working with the university, but it was still too early for a decision to be made on whether exams will be on-campus or online. Rogers said the plan currently is still for on-campus exams, but there will be online options for students who can’t attend.
Comments on student Facebook group UoA: Meaningful Confessions suggested the university’s hesitation over allowing online exams was due to the rise in cheating and plagiarism. An engineering student told The Spinoff they were aware of some people using a website where students could upload questions and pay a tutor to answer them.
Two Faculty of Arts tutors said they hadn’t noticed any substantial rises in plagiarism, however, suggesting the issue may be more prevalent in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) courses.
An arts/science conjoint student was concerned about the lack of consistency between students examined in person and students overseas taking exams online. Some students had expressed concern about the quality of online learning, with a fourth year pharmacy student expressing frustration about online lectures for their course being repeated recordings from last year.
The University of Auckland had provided a five-mark grade bump in semester one, but decided that while the recent level three lockdown has been disruptive, “a further grade bump is not considered appropriate and will not be applied”.
Victoria University of Wellington (21,000+ students)
Victoria has opened up its campuses, with most in-person lectures and tutorials starting again. Contact tracing, physical distancing and mask use in common spaces is encouraged.
There will be no in-person exams for trimester two and three, except for rare instances when it is needed to meet external professional requirements. There will still be in-person tests in some courses.
A bachelor of science student who was recently on Te Aro campus told The Spinoff it was “hectic as fuck – you tag in with your card, or on Kelburn campus there is a QR code, and everyone’s sitting close to each other”.
While mask use is encouraged, the student hadn’t seen many people wearing them on campus. There will be a week of examinations, but assessments had been adjusted down from their usual 40-50% weight.
A postgrad student and tutor said most 100 level papers had 300-plus students, and lectures operated on a first-come first-served basis. For those who couldn’t make it into the theatre, or preferred to remotely study, they would still have access to recorded lectures.
While he didn’t mind online learning, he felt “privileged to be in a good home environment”.
He also said that because there wasn’t a grade bump, tutors were operating “under the general belief to be a little easier with marking of assignments and extension requests in light of Covid-19”.
AUT (27,000+ students)
Auckland University of Technology will be moving to a blend of in-person and online teaching, left to the discretion of each faculty during alert level two.
There will be no in-person exams unless there are requirements imposed by professional registration bodies, or any other compelling reasons required for the course.
Law student Veronica Manning said the move was helpful, as around half the students in her class had other commitments that were intensified by the lockdown, such as demanding jobs or childcare.
AUT is encouraging mask use, but Manning said most students remove their masks once they’re in the classroom. She said it had been easy for her to distance herself from other people as she didn’t have particularly large classes.
There is currently no grade bump for AUT students, and nor was there for semester one, but students can choose to take up an automatic five-day extension on assignments.
Massey University (30,000+ students)
With campuses in Auckland, Palmerston North and Wellington, Massey University is operating with a blend of in-person and online teaching. On-campus learning occurs with physical distancing procedures in place.
According to a final year food science student, the format of lectures varies depending on the course. For her, they’re still all currently online. Lab spaces are also monitored closely, with mask use and sign-in sheets.
There are no on-campus examinations, which have been replaced by time-constrained assessments. For courses with exams worth 60% or more, online supervised exams will be conducted. Only students in courses such as veterinary, aviation or other science courses will be required to come on campus for assessment in a supervised environment.
During semester one, assessments and assignments were marked less harshly, with a blanket “impaired performance consideration” applied. For semester two, it’s thought assignments will be marked in a similar format based on the discretion of each faculty.
Lincoln University (6000+ students)
Lincoln University will offer all course material online regardless of alert level changes.
During level one, campus will be open for face-to-face teaching, including lectures, labs, field trips and tutorials. Mask use and hygiene practices are encouraged.
There will be no in-person exams for semester two.
University of Otago (20,000+ students)
The University of Otago is operating a blend of online and on campus teaching, based on class size and available lecture theatres that can accommodate social distancing.
A bachelor of arts student told The Spinoff she found the online format difficult. She believed her English classes would be small enough to accommodate physical distancing, but understands the decision is based more on cohesive teaching across the faculty.
Academic adjustments include a five mark addition to students in full year papers to each of their assessments held in the first semester.
Second semester marks will be rounded up to 50 (pass) if students achieved 47, 48 or 49.
In an email sent to students, Otago said it would not be grade bumping for semester two. Reasons given included that students had performed better in semester one compared to semester one of the previous year, at that point, no other New Zealand university had made grade adjustments, and to “protect the integrity of the Otago degree”.
As for assessments, physical examinations would proceed in alert level one and two, with physical distancing and mask use required at level two. Exams would be delivered online if there was a move to level three or four.
Waikato University (9000+ students)
Waikato University is using a mix of face-to face teaching and online material. Students were encouraged to come to campus during alert level two, with physical distancing. Mask use is encouraged in spaces where physical distancing is not possible.
Most exams this trimester will be replaced with alternative assessments and/or online, open-book tests.
According to a spokesperson, Waikato’s online format is to enable a “shift in and out of alert levels with no disruption to learning”.
Waikato Students’ Union director Nelson Cooper said the new exam format had been well received by students and the university had a “response more tailored to the individual” when it came to grade adjustments and compassionate considerations.
Cooper said the majority of students struggled to focus on a screen for extended periods when it came to video lectures and Zoom tutorials, preferring “face-to-face for the live question asking and social interaction”.
University of Canterbury (16,000+ students)
Lectures have been offered on campus for most courses with physical distancing, and online (live or recorded) will remain available for the rest of the year.
Room capacities for on-campus learning have been limited to 50%, with stickers to ensure distancing, while labs, tutorials, workshops and smaller specialist classes under 100 people have continued with distancing.
Under level two, students have been expected to wear face coverings for all on-campus learning and common spaces such as the library had a strictly enforced 1m physical distancing rule. Under level one, face to face lectures, tutorials and labs will continue without restrictions, and online classes will continue for rest of year.
Students are expected for on-campus examinations in alert level one and two, but the timetable will change if there’s a move back to level three.