The higher education sector, and I am sure that this applies as much to universities across Europe as it does within the UK, has responded really well to what is an unprecedented challenge that every institution is facing with Covid-19.
I have been hugely impressed by the quality of response that Strathclyde’s staff and students have made since the University campus was closed for face-to-face teaching in mid-March. Irrespective of their role or involvement, colleagues have very much stepped up to the plate and continued to deliver the best possible student experience.
Core to all we have done in response to the changing environment is maintenance of academic standards and quality. In terms of our work we have, particularly in respect of assessment, maintained full oversight and academic governance in our actions and response. We have been agile, working very closely with our key education stakeholders, groups and committees to provide the necessary academic and governance reassurance to our colleagues. This has also ensured student participation in key decisions made by University Court and Senate where our students are full members.
Our approach to capturing the student voice has been about general engagement, and moving from announcing to communicating, and this is a very important feature of the work we have undertaken. Some of our communications have, necessarily, been academically-focused. However, much has also been around pastoral support; particularly the transitions we have had to make as an institution to deliver services to our students that were previously provided on campus and face-to-face, moving these to off campus, distance-based approaches.
Much of our activity has been around providing reassurance for our students. Our feedback suggests they have welcomed that proactive approach, and I think the partnerships that we already had with our students have proved invaluable at this challenging time. Had we needed to build relationships, it would have been much tougher. We entered this period from a position of teamworking and trust where we had systems in place to ensure students were confident of communicating with us and, in turn, that we had the mechanisms to update and respond.
We have taken some significant, student-focused decisions around assessment requirements. For example, we have established a ‘no detriment’ approach, but what we have done is take a further step to embed that in the guidance we have developed for our boards of examiners. That also incorporates the use of video conferencing for PhD and other research-based assessments and “viva” examinations. We have also been heavily involved in discussions with the professional bodies that accredit many of our degrees, in order to make sure that students would not be disadvantaged by decisions we have taken as an institution and which could impact on their eligibility for professional registration.
In addition, we recognised very quickly that there was considerable variation in equity of access to technology, underpinning resources and infrastructure that would allow students and staff to transition to off campus, online working, study and assessment. We have tried wherever possible, as you would expect, to be as fair and transparent as we could to make sure those colleagues who found themselves in a more challenged environment in terms of access to technology were and continue to be well-supported.
The feedback we have had from our students has been very positive indeed – they have appreciated the speed with which we have been able to react and respond. What is emerging, though, and we are mindful of this, is there is a recognition in that what we have been in is essentially emergency mode. I know that our students, and also our staff, are highlighting the pedagogical differences between courses that were specifically designed from the outset as online programmes and those which had to transition to online at short notice. We have been fortunate in that we have an inclusive academic community, which fully integrates with professional services colleagues and our students. That active embedded participation in relationships has really allowed us to be more agile and supportive of our students and staff.
Over the summer period, as we move towards the next academic year, we will seek to integrate as much of the good practice from these established online programmes into the more responsive ones. We will also ensure that support for our students is embedded in whatever the new and emerging environment holds.
Brian Green is Deputy Associate Principal (Learning & Teaching) at the University of Strathclyde, and was a panellist on Explorance’s ‘How can we capture the student voice in a time of Coronavirus?’ webinar on 13th May
Blue•Course evaluations•COVID-19•Higher education•Student Experience Management•