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Durham University proposes controversial plans to move courses online

Durham University has proposed moving certain entire modules and degree programmes to online teaching with the start of the 2020/21 academic year, even once the Coronavirus pandemic is over.

Durham’s staff and student body have broadly criticised the proposals and the university’s failure to consult them in the matter. The proposals were rejected by Durham’s senate on April 22nd and will be amended before being presented for endorsement again.

Most UK universities made the jump in March to temporary online teaching in the light of the current situation, but Durham aims to take this a step further.

The university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-Provost have suggested the provision of online-only modules and even entire degrees, starting in the 2020/21 academic year. This is with the goal of potentially eventually making all of their degree programmes fully remotely accessible. 

In their proposals, collectively dubbed ‘Unbound Education’, it was hoped that the number of modules taught in person in Durham will be reduced by 25% next academic year, and that by October 2020, eight new degree programmes would be available for entirely online teaching, with flexible start dates.

This would mean that the university’s student body would consist of a mixture of students studying and living full-time in Durham, students solely learning online, and students doing a mixture of online and in person modules. 

The report has received considerable opposition from Durham University’s academics and students alike, as well as the UK-wide University and Colleges Union (UCU). 

“highly concerning… cynical and reckless”

In a letter to the Vice-Chancellor, nearly 500 of the university’s academics have said the proposals were “highly concerning… cynical and reckless”.

Similarly, the Durham branch of the UCU voted to oppose the measures suggested without consultation, and the UCU’s General Secretary, Jo Grady, has called on the university to halt their plans, calling the lack of staff consultation “unacceptable”.

Across the student body, there has been a strong backlash, with a petition against the proposals circulated among Durham students garnering over 1000 signatures.

Further, students have been taking to social media to voice their concerns about the classism evident in the proposals.

Students expressed the belief that the ‘Unbound Education’ plans would lead to a higher proportion of well-off, British students physically on the Durham campus and who are therefore better able to access the university’s resources – an issue with which the university notorious already struggles.

The Students’ Union also criticised the lack of consultation with students about the report’s recommendations.

The senate, Durham University’s supreme governing body, met on April 22nd to discuss the proposals. As a consequence of large numbers of the Senate expressing opposition, all resolutions were withdrawn and will be amended and re-presented.

The ‘Unbound Education’ initiative came after a review of the university’s current online capacities, in the light of a more urgent move to online teaching provoked by the Coronavirus pandemic.

It was found that Durham University was behind its main competitors in terms of their digital educational offerings, and so the measures aim to rectify this. 

If the plans were put in place, they would enable the university to better cater to international students, who pay much more for their tuition than UK students do.

The move would therefore increase potential profits for the institution, which depends on tuition and accommodation fees more than other Russell Group universities, due to its smaller research and endowment income.

An anonymous senior member of the university’s administration has labelled the proposals “a desperate gamble” with motivations that are “certainly financial”. 

“some and perhaps a significant number of students will not be able to travel to and live in Durham in 2020/21”

However, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost Antony Long has suggested that the move is purely a response to the pandemic.

He has stated that in anticipation of the fact that “some and perhaps a significant number of students will not be able to travel to and live in Durham in 2020/21, [the university] are preparing an online, distance learning programme that is both inclusive and high-quality”.

The University of Manchester. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But what does this mean for University of Manchester students? 

UoM already has a considerable offering for online learning, and has been listed as the 3rd best UK university for distance learning by distancelearningportal.com. It offers 46 mostly post-graduate level courses available for totally online completion. 

In terms of finances, more than 50% of UoM’s income in the year 2018/19 came from sources other than tuition fees, so as an institution they are less reliant on international students’ fees for survival than Durham is.

This means it is unlikely that UoM will introduce such extreme, long term changes to its existing in-person degree programmes as have been proposed at Durham. 

However, in an email sent to staff on April 23rd, Dame Nancy Rothwell has suggested that due to uncertainties regarding teaching in the 2020/21 academic year, the university is looking into “optimising and developing new high quality online learning programmes” and the possibility of international students receiving tuition from their home countries. 

With a potential income loss of over £270 million, we may see UoM turning to similar measures as proposed by Durham University in order to keep afloat in the light of such a financial blow.

Tags: covid-19, Dame Nancy Rothwell, Distance Learning, durham university, online teaching, The University of Manchester

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