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Nouse speaks with VC Charlie Jeffery about tuition fees, safety nets, and online education

“Our students are getting a good experience online. It is not the same experience as they would normally have, but I don’t think anyone is thinking that it is a worse or less effective experience”

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Image Credit: University of York

With the current uncertainty surrounding practically every element of a students’ life, in an exclusive interview with Nouse, the Vice-Chancellor, Charlie Jeffery, sheds light on the debates surrounding tuition fees, the increased risks to students’ mental health, and how the University is coping with the move to online teaching.

We firstly asked the Vice-Chancellor the question on many students’ minds - how can the University justify charging full tuition fees when the blended learning that was promised is now not a reality for most students? Jeffery replied by firmly stating that “we don’t want to be in this situation, but we are… this is beyond our control.” Despite this, the VC tells us, “what we are doing though is making sure that the learning outcomes can still be achieved through different means.”

He also discusses how the move to online teaching “is not costing me any less as the Vice-Chancellor to provide what we are providing: it is the same people who are devising the education that students are experiencing; they are still the same experts in their field, they are still the same teachers – and we still have a wider infrastructure behind them even if it can’t be experienced in the same physical way.” He goes on to state that “the reality is that student fees are what are paying for that and for staff wages. If we don’t have those fees, what can I do?”

Despite this, there is extensive evidence that online education is not as effective as face-to-face contact. Therefore, we asked the Vice-Chancellor as to why students should have confidence in online teaching when they have been previously told in the past that replay capture is not a substitute for attending in-person lectures.

He responded to this by saying: “what we have seen in the last period is that people are using the lecture in a different way – they are not necessarily just recording themselves talking for 45 minutes, but they are instead breaking things up in ways that can be more amenable to online discussion and engagement.” He continued, adding that “some students may have been surprised with how effective this is and I think some members of the academic staff may also be surprised about how effective their online teaching has been. So, I think academics who may have been sceptical about lecture recording may be a bit less sceptical now.” He later informed us that “the engagement with online learning has been really strong and effective. I think our students are getting a good experience online. It is not the same experience as they would normally have, but I don’t think anyone is thinking that it is a worse or less effective experience.”

However, even though the level of online teaching has increased, and is to a high standard under the current circumstances, it is undeniable that there are damaging effects to students’ education in this move to online teaching. In light of this, we asked the Vice-Chancellor as to what plans the University have in place for ensuring that students’ grades will not be unfairly impacted by the current circumstances, and as to whether the University will implement a safety net as they did in the previous academic year.

He starts by setting out that “the purpose of the safety net was to use past achievements as a floor below which you couldn’t fall. Because we are in the first term, we don’t have that past achievement – we could say we have it for first- and second-year undergraduates – but that goes back to the previous safety net which means those achievements are further back still.” Because of this, he makes it clear that “the same kind of safety net won’t work” for this academic year.

However, despite stating that the University is reluctant to implement a safety net, Jeffery tells us that the University and YUSU are still “thinking about how we could ensure that students are not disadvantaged in this situation.” He says that “one part of that will be to ensure that we have a very slick exceptional circumstances process, which isn’t bureaucratic and which recognises the circumstances we are in.” He then adds that “the other will be working with our current processes of grading and marking to see if there are anomalies of the patterns of achievements of previous years.” He concludes by stating that “we may not be able to do things on an individual basis, as we don’t have that information of previous marks, but we can look back at previous years for patterns of achievements by course. If those are out of sync then we have the basis to intervene.”

From what the Vice-Chancellor tells us, then, it is clear that despite the circumstances the University is trying to maintain normality in the curriculum by attempting to provide as good a quality experience of teaching online as in-person. However, academic achievement is not the only worry amongst the student body in the current climate. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a new wave of student mental health issues. Due to this increased risk facing students’ mental health, we questioned the Vice-Chancellor as to what the University is doing to help students through these dangers.

Jeffery told Nouse that “this is an extraordinary time and it is producing stresses and anxieties which no one could have anticipated, and the challenges of lockdown certainly add to that.” He goes on to explain that he has been in discussion with YUSU and the GSA as to how they can “combat those challenges.”

In terms of increased direct support for students, the Vice-Chancellor tells us that “we have employed, and are employing further, student wellbeing officers who are working with and through our academic departments.” He goes on to discuss how York’s college system is also being employed to help, stating that “the services which we offer through our colleges – we are looking through the colleges to look at forms of peer-to-peer support that can work in these conditions.” These “forms of peer-to-peer support” are important, the VC tells us, because “for many students, household dynamics may not be as strong, so it is important to have someone from outside those dynamics to reach out to.”

The Vice-Chancellor is clearly motivated to mitigate the mental strains placed on students during the current climate. He exclaims that YUSU worked “wonderfully in the lockdown earlier in the year” to provide an online portfolio of activities. To boost that portfolio further, Jeffery states that “if we have to spend some money on that, I will cover it. It is really important that we provide diversions for students alongside their studies.”

Another important ancillary University experience is the end of year graduation. Due to the restrictions in place last academic year, graduating students were unable to attend a physical ceremony and instead experienced an online one. We enquired into the plans the University currently have to give those students an actual graduation, and their plans for graduation this year. In response the Vice-Chancellor reassures past students, stating that “I will commit that anyone who has not been able to have that experience because of Covid will get a proper graduation in person in due course.” Due to the nature of the pandemic, he “can’t say when that will be, as we don’t know when it will be safe again to pack a big hall full of people,” but promises that “when we do have that possibility, we will offer it to all those who have graduated through online ceremonies.”

In terms of this years’ graduation, Jeffery tells us that the University will look into the experience and feedback of last years’ graduation ceremony – which he states was “generally very good” – and make sure that in the event of further national restrictions, the University “will look to making it as memorable as possible.”

In light of a recent article written by Nouse which discussed how the Vice-Chancellor has and has not enacted his environmental promises, we asked him whether he can assure the student body that environmental changes and strives are being achieved, even in the current climate.

He begins by definitively stating that “I think it is one of the most important things for us to be doing.” Interestingly, he goes on to tell us his aim to improve environmental education at the University, explaining how he “would like all students to have the possibility to have sustainability elements in their learning no matter what subject they do.” He tells us that he thinks it is “entirely possible to have in all subjects at the University.”

Beyond environmental education, the Vice-Chancellor discusses the physical strives the University is taking on. He explains by telling us that “what is really important is to think about how we work as an institution,” adding that “there are two really big things which cause us to emit carbon. One is our estate, and how we power it – the other is travel.”

In terms of the University’s estates, the Vice-Chancellor discusses how “we are moving into using a different set of standards for constructing new buildings, and my goodness we need them – our 60s buildings are environmentally very poor – so we really need to find the money to invest into our estates so that we can have the buildings that would really get us to where we need to be, which is carbon neutral by 2030.” He also discusses travel, explaining how the current pandemic has highlighted ways in which academics from across the globe can communicate in an eco-friendlier way.

At the end of our interview with Charlie Jeffery, we ask him if there is anything he would like to add that our questions didn’t cover. In praise of the work all members of the University are currently undergoing, the Vice-Chancellor tells us:

“The thing that I would say is that it has been an extremely challenging nine months and it has thrown all sorts in the air and has changed the experience of university to students across the board. You have to say, and though it is not without bumps in the road, that the general sense is that people have coped extremely well – people have adapted, have been resilient and creative and they have supported one another. I think it says something about universities in general, but about ours in particular which is that we have a stronger community and we have done well and have worked so hard to make the best of the situation at hand.”

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