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Lecturers condemn Durham University's plan to shift degrees online

Lecturers condemn Durham University's plan to shift degrees online

The University and College Union (UCU) has condemned plans by Durham University to provide online-only degrees and significantly reduce face-to-face lecturing in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The union’s general secretary Jo Grady called on the university to halt proposals to cut “live” teaching by 25% as part of a radical shift towards providing online learning, which she described as “destructive” and “an attack on staff”.

The radical redesign of the university’s curriculum, revealed by student newspaper Palatinate, would “invert Durham’s traditional educational model”, based on residential study, with one that places “online resources at the core enabling us to provide education at a distance”.

The proposals, drawn up by deputy vice-chancellor Antony Long and vice-provost for education Alan Houston, warned that Durham has been slow to develop online education compared to its competitors, which posed “a very significant financial and reputational risk” to the university.

Under the plans, seen by the Guardian, some students would only study online, some would be taught on campus, and others would do both. The proposals, drawn up without consulting staff or students, would reduce the number of modules taught in person by a quarter in the next academic year, with the goal of providing at least 500 of them completely online by the summer of 2021.

An anthropology and archaeology student said she feared the plans would devalue her degree. She added: “This is clearly to increase the number of students on the books paying full fees, whilst maintaining existing staff levels. I feel like [a] cash cow and fear more strike action while I’m out of pocket and have very little to show for it in terms of education.”

The document, due to be considered by the university’s senate later this month, also proposes contracting a private education firm, Cambridge Education Group Digital, to develop a business case to implement the plans.

The UCU said that universities “should not see the global pandemic as an opportunity to try and drastically alter their different business models”, and urged Durham to consult properly with staff and students over any changes.

Grady added: “This looks like an attack on the livelihoods and the professional expertise of hard-working staff – all to line the pockets of private providers who don’t have the same track record of providing high standards of education.

“Durham needs to halt these plans. The fact there has been no consultation with staff or students is unacceptable and we will continue to defend the quality of education staff provide and our members’ jobs.

“Changes to our higher education system should be led by staff from the ground up, whether they are necessitated by Covid-19 or not. We will do everything we can to challenge this and any other similarly destructive proposals.”

The Durham plans revealed that a third of its undergraduate and half of postgraduate modules currently lack any online learning, noting: “In the short-term, we risk being unable to provide even a basic ‘minimum viable product’ online for our [academic year] 2020/21 intake.”

The university aims to provide its key postgraduate and first-year undergraduate degrees online by October 2020, with a focus on delivering those with the most “international market potential”.

Durham UCU branch held a virtual emergency general meeting this week where members “voted to firmly oppose rushed long-term changes taken without proper consultation”.

More than 300 Durham academics have also signed a letter to vice-chancellor Stuart Corbridge, describing the proposals as “highly concerning … cynical and reckless”.

Prof Antony Long, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, said: “None of us yet know what the 2020-21 academic year will look like, but we must plan now so that when we do, we have options properly developed and ready to implement.

“Anticipating that some and perhaps a significant number of students will not be able to travel to and live in Durham [then], we are preparing an online, distance learning programme that is both inclusive and high-quality.”

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Written by David Batty,
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