“The University’s response to COVID-19: the story so far.”
Words by Ivan Bucalo
The response to COVID-19 by major institutions like the University of Adelaide has been, to put it squarely, quite staggered. Of course, when was the last time major institutions had to deal with a crisis like this? In comparison to modern viral outbreaks of Ebola and swine flu, they were a flash in the pan for Australians at the time. Moreover, they didn’t fundamentally change how students were expected to navigate their education.
The first and arguably most significant change thus far was that all courses would eventually be transitioned online. Friday April 3rd was the last day tutorials and lectures would be held on-site, as students were welcomed into the University of Zoom over a matter of weeks. The response to this transition has been mixed. The most frequent complaint across the board is that, for some reason, it is simply difficult to keep yourself motivated working from home. There is something special about being around other people — friends, tutors, lecturers, fellow club members — and the lack of the human touch which has affected almost everyone, not just students, has devalued the experience of higher education. We’re all students because we understand having a degree gives you a leg-up in today’s workforce. But the fact remains that what differentiates each of us is the connections we make, the ideas we form, the stuff we do outside the classroom which feeds back into our studies and makes us better individuals. While clubs and extra-curricular programs have made a valiant effort to stay connected in spite of social distancing, there’s only so much you can do over Zoom and social media. Sporting clubs have also been shut down as per UoA Blacks’ directive. And without Clubsland mid-year, many more beside will struggle to find new members. The University’s management would be wise to consider all this when it comes to weighing up the pros and cons of remote learning. We will eventually move into a post-pandemic world — sooner rather than later in Australia — and there will be both winners and losers. The University of Adelaide’s management must ensure there will be no first-order and second-order students in an opportunistic attempt to cut the cost of course delivery. This concern stems from the general observation that where businesses can cut costs, they will.
The other big change this semester has been to give students the option of a Non-Graded Pass (NGP), and the option to convert a Fail to Withdraw No Fail (WNF). This measure addresses the voice of students who are not confident they will be able to achieve academically in Semester 1 because of learning disruptions and the strain put upon mental health. Neither will affect GPA calculations, but if chosen instead of the initial grade will appear as such on your academic transcript. NGPs can be requested after Semester 1 results are available, while all Withdraw Fails, Fail No Submissions, and Fails alone will automatically be converted to WNFs without additional student action. This measure was in some respects an alternative concession offered to members of the SRC who lobbied for an extension to the census date. This would follow suit with UniSA’s decision, the underlying reason being that students want to get an idea of what they’re in for when it comes to remote learning and to get a chance to defer study if necessary. The University remained unusually tight-lipped about the idea, even though it was discussed frequently within the SRC, and made no official comment about the census date addressed to students. Understandably, with the University expected to see a $100 million decrease in revenue from the last financial year due to COVID-19, any refund of tuition fees would only grow this figure. While NGPs solve the problem of hurting GPAs because of the stressful circumstances, the fact remains that the last day students could withdraw tuition fees was March 26th and not all courses were online until April 3rd. Some took longer than that to begin Zoom tutorials. There is no doubt that the fixed census date saved staff jobs, but the University needed to be open about its reasons and communicate them to the student body.
Once again: to the University’s credit, they could only know as much as the government tells them and needed to make some tough decisions. And none of this is to claim there has been no action to provide relief to students who are themselves doing it tough. The Student Support Package, developed in partnership with the AUU and SRC reps, and which the grading changes form one part of, is a testament to what can be done when the relationship between students and staff is cooperative rather than a zero-sum game.
The Student Wellbeing Plan is a truly vital and comprehensive resource for determining where exactly you need to go to access services and resources without physically travelling to campus. Kudos must be given to student representatives who quickly realized the greatest toll this quarantine will take on the overwhelming majority of us is psychological. The AUU, sporting clubs, and Fitness Hub are keeping in touch regularly through social media channels with a host of do-it-at-home activities. The Union has also been in touch with clubs advising them how to transition events online. It is worth noting the possibility of a still-active community life in times like these would have been unthinkable just twenty years ago; despite the circumstances, we should count our blessings. I also have to plug Things To Do At Adelaide U, which every student really should be joined with on Facebook. If anything is happening clubs-wise at UoA during this time, you can bet it will be up there before you can say “go”. The admins have always done a superb job keeping followers updated and introducing them to new clubs through event listings, and they’ve gone above and beyond to keep it running given the relatively sparse activity. Undoubtedly, we’re all waiting to see that page busier than ever after the quarantine is lifted.
No matter how difficult COVID-19 has made life for everyone, some of us have been hit where it hurts most. Some have been fortunate enough to qualify for JobKeeper payments while looking for interim employment or as a top-up to dwindling hours. For those who can’t access JobKeeper or additional government assistance, there is Emergency financial assistance available from the University in the form of targeted grants. Grants can be used to cover anything from the cost of IT equipment to food and accommodation; any major financial difficulties should be referred here. Grants are allocated on a priority basis subject to the student’s personal circumstances. On Dit is in touch with the UoA media office and will have more details about the financial assistance program in the coming days.
Assessing how the University has gone about dealing with the pandemic is not like handing out a report card. No one really knows what things will be like a month from now, let alone two or three months from now when it comes to COVID-19. So far, the only certain course of action for the uni can be to commit to the highest standard of transparency between staff, students, and upper-management. The census date bungle wasn’t a good start but seems to have been a lesson learned. All eyes are now on the sudden resignation of Chancellor Kevin Scarce and VC Peter Rathjen’s indefinite leave, and how Acting VC Mike Brooks negotiates the communications between all members of the community will be crucial to reassuring everyone the relationship between University of Adelaide and its students is open and honest.
Disclaimer: Ivan Bucalo sits on the Board of the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild in a volunteer capacity.