Distance learning: Durham University plans shake-up despite union objections

The University and College Union says the university executive committee has not consulted staff on its plans

Durham University (DU) has been accused by the University and College Union of using the “opportunity” of the Covid-19 pandemic to “swiftly implement radical change”, after leaked confidential documents revealed the university was planning a major expansion of its distance learning provision.

University Business has seen confidential notes presented to a meeting of the university’s executive committee by deputy vice-chancellor and provost Prof Antony Long and vice-provost Prof Alan Houston on 31 March.

Prof Long and Prof Houston told the committee that Durham University (DU) must catch up with its competitors and offer students onsite, offsite, and blended learning in time for the next academic year.

They also recommended redesigning the academic calendar to offer students flexible start dates in October, January and April and the chance to suspend and rejoin modules.

The radical overhaul is part of the university’s Strategy 2027, which aims to increase the number of international students at Durham University to “closer to the Russell Group mean”.

“Most of the global HEI sector has moved online in a matter of days or weeks and all are thinking now about what this means for their long-term operating model,” Prof Long and Prof Houston wrote, adding that Durham was behind the international curve and exposed to “very significant financial and reputational risk”.

Durham University to offer distance learning by October

The executive committee was told that all of Durham’s educational offer will be available online “to a global market” in time for the 2020/21 academic year.

“To achieve this requires a new design to the DU curriculum that is compatible with online provision at this scale,” the authors added, suggesting the university simplify its degree design and create a standard credit system across all modules.

The two senior leaders said the university was not “walking away from the strength of our on-site offer on which much of Durham’s reputation is based.

“Rather we are redesigning that offer and augmenting it with serious, world-quality, online resources that will form the basis of learning at a distance.”

The proposed changes include reducing the number of modules by 25% for the 2020/21 academic year. The university aims to have all key postgraduate taught (PGT) and undergraduate (UG) programmes online by October 2020, then to have fully migrated all undergraduate and postgraduate modules to the online sphere in the next 18 months.

Distance learning: Durham University plans shake-up despite union objections body image
Durham University said the plans had been ongoing for two years and staff would be consulted on the proposals. Image via Flickr.

UCU criticises Durham for not consulting staff

But the proposal to redesign the university’s curriculum and modules for online was met with scepticism by the local branch of the University and College Union.

Durham UCU (DUCU) told student newspaper The Palatinate that it was “deeply concerned about the proposals”. The local union said it held an emergency general meeting attended by 180 members who voted to oppose “rush long-term changes taken without proper consultation”.

“To date, there has been no consultation with DUCU about the proposals. We support online learning as part of the response to the Covid-19 crisis but the approach currently being floated is for a permanent change, and one that will not benefit staff or students.

“Our concerns include the implications for degree programmes of a 25% reduction in modules for next year and how this will affect staff and students. UCU is opposed to any outsourcing of the delivery or planning of teaching and learning, and we are thus also concerned about the involvement of a private education company to roll out some of these proposals.”

According to the confidential notes, the university estimates it could lose in the range of 20-25% of its annual income because of the impact of Covid-19 on international student recruitment. The executive committee was told the university has been slow to develop online learning and “relies heavily” on income from full-time students (64%) – further more, a third of undergraduate programmes have no online offering.

The university said it was not correct that it wanted to reduce face-to-face teaching and suggested a reduction in teaching modules this year in order to give teaching staff time to prepare for the transition.

It added that the plans would be shortly presented to the senate, departmental heads and union representatives for feedback. It added that these plans have been ongoing for two years and many of the proposals have already been explored with staff.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The global pandemic is not an opportunity for universities to try to swiftly implement radical change.”

Ms 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.”

‘None of us yet know what the 2020/21 academic year will look like’

Prof Long responded to the criticism: “We want to ensure we can continue to deliver highest possible quality of educational offer for both current and future students within a strong collegiate and academic community.

“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 for our current and future students.

“Our focus is as ever on the quality of the Durham educational offer.  If you choose to study at Durham, in Durham itself, from a distance or perhaps in combination, you will get a world-class experience.

“Anticipating that some and perhaps a significant number of students will not be able to travel to and live in Durham in 2020/21, we are preparing an online, distance learning programme that is both inclusive and high-quality. We already deliver highly successful online programmes such as our Online MBA, which is ranked in the top ten in the world.

“We are extremely grateful for how our staff have responded to the Covid-19 crisis and we welcome their input, as well as that from trade union and student representatives, as we seek to take these proposals forward.”

New research by the Higher Education Policy Institute reveals that only 49% of UK undergraduate students are happy with their university’s online teaching.

Universities UK (UUK) wrote to the government last week to ask for a multi-billion-pound package to support the sector as it copes with the coronavirus crisis. UUK estimates that the higher education sector will lose £790 million this year from accommodation, catering and conference income – and could lose up to £6.9 billion next year if the numbers of international students drop dramatically.

UCU has also sent a letter to the government calling for protections for universities and colleges during the coronavirus crisis. In the letter, UCU criticised universities for not considering the viability of long-term distance learning programmes.

“With the trajectory of the pandemic still unclear, UCU is concerned that overambitious plans to resume operations in the autumn will mislead potential students into believing a return to normal operations is imminent. This lack of clear and transparent information is particularly relevant given the substantial lifetime financial investment now required in order to access student loans in HE and FE.”

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