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Class sizes set to increase following COVID-related cuts

The Mancunion understands that the University of Manchester is planning to scale up class sizes for the 2020/21 academic year in an effort to curb losses incurred by Covid-19.

It is understood that first-year tutorial sizes are set to increase by 25%, from 15 students to 20. Similar changes are also being considered on level two and three courses, although these have yet to be confirmed.

One lecturer in the Department of English Literature, American Studies, & Creative Writing (EAC) told The Mancunion that staff are “extremely worried” about larger tutorials and increased teaching load, which “favours neither them nor their students”.

She called the plans “a desperate attempt to save on costs and increase profit,” and said the University were “ignoring long-term consequences to the university’s ability to attract future students and to the research environment”.

There were also suggestions that the number of courses available to students could be scaled back in an attempt to reduce time spent on adapting modules to an online format.

A University of Manchester spokesperson said that no changes to class sizes had been agreed or announced and they were “having to prepare and plan for all eventualities and scenarios” but that staff and students remained their top priority.

Extract from 27 April 2020 virtual EAC department meeting

Speaking to The Mancunion, an EAC staff member said: “The administration has ordered a number of changes to be implemented in autumn 2020. All first-year seminars will now have 20 students, up from 12-15. This decision runs contrary to the interests of students and will erode ‘the student experience’.”

She also voiced concern over the effect the changes would have on staff, calling the decision to treatment of those on fixed-term contracts “shameful”.

“What’s surprising about this decision not to renew colleagues’ fixed-term contracts is that the administration doesn’t seem to have paused to consider how “socially irresponsible” it looks to make these valuable staff members jobless at a time when UK unemployment is skyrocketing.

“University administrators are constantly congratulating themselves for the University’s investment in “social responsibility,” but their treatment of fixed-term staff at this moment shows the shameful limits of that commitment with respect to their own staff.”

Bigger class sizes are likely to be exacerbated if the number of modules available to students is cut, in order to avoid converting all courses to an online format.

Final-year English Literature and French student Ellie Martin said increasing seminars to 20 students would mean that students would struggle to make the most of the time.

“Most humanities students only get one hour of seminar contact time with a lecturer [per module], to increase seminar groups to 20 decreases the amount of time we have to share our ideas even further.

“In a degree that already feels like lecturer’s time is stretched, this is a kick in the teeth.”

Also discussed in the EAC staff meeting was the possibility of reducing available modules to in turn reduce lecturers’ workload: “[Staff are] advised that every module running would require time devoted to converting it to online teaching and that the fewer modules ran, the less time would be used up by this.”

Although no concrete plans have been announced yet regarding the start of the next academic year, the minutes of the EAC staff meeting indicate that the University are actively planning for the possibility of continuing online teaching into the autumn. A decision on this is expected to be made during the week.

Universities such as Edinburgh have already set out plans to start teaching online in September, with the intention of moving back to in-person classes later in the year.

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “No changes to class sizes have been agreed or announced. Given the evolving nature of the current situation the higher education sector finds itself in we, as an institution, have to prepare and plan for all possible eventualities and scenarios.

“This includes looking at ways we can further expand and develop our high-quality online teaching provision. But we are also exploring other solutions and working with the relevant staff and student bodies, including the Students’ Union, to find the best workable outcome for everyone at the University.

“We will inform all students directly of any changes that affect them once these have been decided. Our staff and students remain our top priority.”

Tags: coronavirus, covid-19, Financial losses, online teaching, University lockdown, University of Manchester

Nicole Wootton-Cane

Deputy Editor of The Mancunion
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