Concern some colleges 'overpromising' on campus time

Emma O'Kelly
Frank Jones

This article written by RTÉ Education Correspondent Emma O Kelly originaly appeared on RTÉ on 9th Jul 2020

A trade union representing university lecturers has expressed concern that some universities may be bowing to commercial concerns and "overpromising" students as to the amount of time they will be able to spend on campus and in face-to-face learning come September.

The warning comes as UCD became the second university this week to outline the broad details of its 'blended learning' approach for autumn reopening.

UCD says it hopes to make campus life for students as normal as possible. It says it is looking at between 40% to 60% of teaching to be delivered 'face-to-face' for undergraduates, with that rising to between 75% to 100% for graduate students. The rest will be delivered online.

However the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has said its members have been "very surprised" by the university's decision.

Frank Jones of IFUT has told RTÉ News that the union, despite being in talks with the university about reopening, has "no idea" as to how the figures were arrived at.

"We don't know what they mean and we don't know what public health concerns were considered."

The college says its aim is to provide a student experience that is as much 'on campus' as possible. 

"The student experience is really important, not just the classroom," Deputy Registrar Professor Barbara Dooley told RTÉ News.

Talking about the importance of a holistic college experience, she said UCD was putting "just as much emphasis on on-campus student facilities".

"We have been planning, looking at capacity, and we feel we can do this", she said. 

IFUT has said it fears that UCD may be "overpromising" students, and that the likelihood is that it will not be able to deliver come Autumn. 

Speaking about the university sector in general, Mr Jones said the union was concerned that commercial factors were feeding into the decisions that universities were making and that they were "overpromising" as a result. 

Those commercial factors would include the need to fill accommodation blocks and the need to stimulate commercial activity across the campus.

"Our concern is that commercial factors are weighing heavier with some universities than health and safety concerns", Mr Jones said.

The UCD calculation stands in contrast to that arrived at by the University of Limerick.

While UL estimates that it can have just 20% of students on campus at any given time, UCD is imposing no such restrictions. UL has also greatly curtailed its face-to-face delivery of lectures, with most students attending campus for just one week out of four, and - even while on campus - viewing lectures online.

Some of the difference is related to the fact that UL has drawn up its plans based on the current two metre distancing guidelines while UCD is planning based on the anticipation that that will be reduced to one metre by the Autumn.

Other colleges have yet to announce details of their plans. Some say it is still too early because the situation is as yet too uncertain.

IFUT is calling for a coordinated approach to all college openings, to be led by the newly established Department of Further and Higher Education.