Few People are Happy About How the University of Leeds Has Handled Covid-19

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The term is starting, students come flooding into Leeds, the government implements lockdown, you know, business as usual. Yet no one really knew what’s going on at the university until maybe, what, two weeks ago? 

I myself as a student of the University of Leeds had been quite confused about the arrangements of studies, support systems and the usual operations on campus, and I definitely have personally witnessed the ubiquitous disgruntlement, anxiety and perplexity among the student body and the staff. So I asked around and it turns out, the University of Leeds has displeased quite a few people.

1. How has the pandemic and the university’s response in March affected your learning (or in other case, the staff’s teaching methods), way of reaching out and general operations, etc.? Do you think the university could have handled the COVID situation better?

Phoebe Dukes, a year 2 student puts it simply: “I have felt left in the dark with no purpose or much academic support,” and felt that the university could have offered “more support and continued teaching”.

“[I’m] now almost having to restart from zero knowledge after being abandoned by the uni in March.”

An anonymous year 2 student echoes Phoebe’s views: “I am still wondering why examinations and the last two weeks of teaching were cancelled. Semester 2 was a waste… [The university could have handled it better] by issuing clear guidelines, teaching the material that was supposed to be taught, not cancelling exams. Adaptation is not giving in for everything because first year doesn’t count.”

Rose said she feels anxious about the coming academic year as she feels she is “now almost having to restart from zero knowledge after being abandoned by the uni in March… after not finishing first year and then having seven months off education which is the longest [she’s] been out of education.”

Other than students, I also contacted Leeds’ University and College Union (UCU) due to their emphatic dissatisfaction with the university’s senior management. Vice President Chloe Wallace emphasises that the staff did the best they could considering the circumstances: “Staff have been working incredibly hard since March adapting to the new way of doing things, learning how to use online platforms and learning and sharing best practice on teaching and student support online. Basically our entire working environment has changed and I’m sure students will see that. I think staff have been brilliant and I’m really proud to be part of that.” 

“Open University charges less and stuck with their online courses…” 

Another anonymous student brings up the financial issue: “I can’t personally forgive the fact that it’s costing me nearly £10k for less than half of the lectures (from both strikes and COVID), and no access to libraries since March, and limited access for next year (and I think access will only become more limited as the Second Wave builds up) – Open University charges less and stuck with their online courses…” 

To which Wallace responds, “UCU’s position, and my own, is that students should not have to pay tuition fees at all. If universities were funded by the government as a public good then we would be in much better financial shape to face these challenges. The government really needs to step forward to provide better financial support for universities and students, rather than leaving everything to the market… Online learning can be really effective – some students may find it better and more accessible than face to face, at least in part.”

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image credit: Maariyah Fulat

Wallace then clarifies that the university staff has been victimized by the school’s upper management as well: “If by the university you mean senior management, then unfortunately it’s been a different story. We moved online too late in March, and communications and decisions have been unclear and inconsistent, such that staff have often not known what we’re being asked to do.

2. What, in your opinion, is/are the primary issue(s) (e.g. lack of communication, awareness, coherence, organisation or efficiency, etc.) in how the university has responded to COVID and its communications with the staff and student body?

There is a common theme among all the answers I got: the university’s lack of communication was felt by all.

Graduate Sampreet Chakraborty sums it up in one sentence: “Lack of communication, lack of efficiency, worst awareness and lack of humanity for the students.” And she’s not alone. 

Year 3 student Lizzie Wright replies, “efficiency – this covers communication and organisation.” 

“Lack of communication and support academically and emotionally for students. It took a long time for us to be told anything as we were never updated,” Phoebe tells me. 

Staff’s hard work and goodwill have been taken for granted.”

A student goes more in depth, saying “Everything is unclear, students have no purpose in studying at uni in such an environment in which it’s impossible to plan ahead and the university is willing to give up what makes a BA an actual BA for financial reasons.”

Wallace, representing Leeds’ UCU also points to communication or the lack thereof as the main culprit: “One issue staff have had is that students were sent important messages which staff didn’t know about, so we would get questions from students we didn’t know the answer to, or complaints about things over which we had no control – which is really stressful.

“Decisions have been made by a small group at the top of the university. Staff and trades unions have often not been consulted, particularly on matters relating to learning and teaching. We’ve been kept in the dark and not listened to. Staff’s hard work and goodwill have been taken for granted.”

3. What are your main concerns as the start of term approaches?

“If any in-person teaching or any practicals goes ahead from January, I’m pretty worried about being in the same as many students, who have generally had less care for the pandemic and are likely to mix in large numbers,” says one student.

The concern of scheduling classes of different natures came up as another anonymous student confesses: “My timetable is still not finished, and I have online and on campus classes back to back, I reached out to the timetabling department but haven’t got a response yet and I am worried I will not be able to fully participate in those classes, because I’ll have to run to the on campus one before the end of the online one.” 

The UCU has several concerns. The first and foremost being “face-to-face teaching and student support”. They believe that “in the current climate, with rising case numbers and a rising R rate, it is a danger to the health of students, staff and the local community to be doing any teaching face-to-face unless strictly necessary… 

“we are still hearing from staff who are being forced to teach face-to-face”- UCU

“Whilst we welcome the Vice Chancellor’s announcement that schools will no longer be required to do face-to-face teaching, we are still hearing from staff who are being forced to teach face-to-face… We are particularly concerned about hourly paid staff (often PhD researchers) who feel that they have to do [it] because they won’t be offered any online work and they are dependent on this work for an income…”

On the matter of the student body’s uneasiness with these regulations in place, Wallace responds that she would “advise students to go to LUU and use their excellent advice services, and to speak to their Schools.”

She worries that “an assumption is being made that all students want face-to-face, which means that, in particular, the concerns of BAME and disabled students, mature students and student carers are not recognised and heard.”

Another issue that the UCU has been stressing over is staffing. According to Wallace, large numbers of staff on fixed-term contracts have not had new contracts or their contracts renewed, despite “having skills the university is going to need in the coming year”. 

“Not only is this bad for the staff concerned, it also increases workload for remaining staff (and we are already worried about workload),” says the Vice-president of the union.

4. What would you suggest the university senior management do to handle this coming academic year and ensure all parties’ safety and sufficient teaching/learning?

Wallace speaks for the staff, the students and several campus trade unions in Leeds: “We think, regretfully, there should be no face-to-face teaching and student support unless strictly necessary until December and then it needs reviewing.”

staff members “predicted the current rise in cases come autumn, but management didn’t seem to listen.” 

Regarding the uncertainties and anxiety everyone experienced starting from March this year, the UCU hopes for “some predictability and certainty, rather than having to move quickly in the face of events” and “planning in advance” as according to Wallace, staff members “predicted the current rise in cases come autumn, but management didn’t seem to listen.” 

“We want the university to consult properly with us as campus trades unions (UCU, Unison and Unite) – this has worked well in some areas, such as the health and safety measures within buildings, but not in others, such as student education.”

A student shares the view of moving everything back online, stating “it’s not worth the money but it’s better than exacerbating the rise in cases”.

Phoebe also believes “constantly [reviewing] rules and advice” would be productive, and she hopes the university could therefore see “how they can adapt a ‘normal’ university experience by trying to make small clusters to meet in person”.

Lizzie raises an important point of inclusivity and compassion for all: “If [they plan to lift] the online learning only blanket, make attending in person optional. Not everyone is able-bodied or mentally well enough to attend a busy university in a pandemic, and it’s ableist to generalise by making everyone attend in person”, and Amy would like to emphasise the dangers of complacency by not only enforcing “optional face to face seminars”, but also “one way systems” and “distanced desks”.

“[they should] try to think and do things in the students’ interest instead of caring about finances and being rigid”.

Plenty of students confess they want to witness a greater amount of humanity and empathy shown from the university management, as one said “[they should] try to think and do things in the students’ interest instead of caring about finances and being rigid”. Wallace of Leeds’ UCU agrees, saying she is “really pleased that the new Vice Chancellor, in a recent communication, referred to the importance of empathy.”

However, she points out that the university management has a long way to go since “[empathy] has not been in great evidence so far”

header image credit: Maariyah Fulat