As spring fumbled its way into summer, Zoom calls and Normal People binges gave birth to a time of melancholic dreaming in anticipation of September, when we would all flood into Dublin. We would be reunited with those friends from whom we had been so abruptly torn 6 months previously. Because College was going to open. Of course it was, and fully. 60% face-to-face – that’s what we were promised. New student spaces, masks, enough hand sanitiser for every student and their dog. Occasionally, a passing reference to an Online Learning Module to break people, if only momentarily, from their belief that things were normal. But we were going back to college. And that meant we needed somewhere to live.
The mass migration of predominantly asymptomatic carriers of a highly infectious disease to densely populated areas did not seem to worry the Irish government, despite it probably being the first thing you are told to avoid in “How to Deal with a Pandemic 101”. But the eerie silence which had pervaded the Irish government’s attitude towards universities in March returned. In fact, for the entirety of the summer, RTÉ news published a single article online, on July 9 pertaining to the situation of Irish universities. The article, somewhat apocalyptically entitled Concern Some Colleges “Overpromising” on Campus Time, quoted the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) as being “very surprised” at UCD’s assertion that they could provide students with 40-60% face-to-face time. The article later points to fears that colleges and universities may continue to over promise, not for the sake of student learning time, but for “commercial reasons.” Gasp. Surely colleges would not choose profit over the health and safety of their students? Surely the government would not allow financial incentives to supersede public health guidelines? It seemed unfathomable. But the silence continued.
“The mass migration of predominantly asymptomatic carriers of a highly infectious disease to large population centres did not seem to worry the Irish government, despite it probably being the first thing you are told to avoid in ‘How to Deal with a Pandemic 101’.”
The government silence throughout the summer was understandable in a sense. They had a lot on their plates between drink driving allegations, golfing dinners, the Leaving Certificate, and the debacle about the pubs. They’re not totally absolved of all failing, but their failure to act efficiently is understandable. However, the behaviour of colleges themselves was reprehensible. As summer came to an end, Trinity inboxes were graced with the presence of the latest Covid-19 weekly update: “The University Council has mandated that as much face-to-face teaching as possible should be scheduled for all students.” Mandated? By the University Council? As much face-to-face teaching as possible? Hallelujah! What do you mean case numbers are rising and the National Public Health Emergency Team is increasingly concerned about the situation in Dublin? The University Council mandated it. We’re going back. Now all we had to do was sit and wait until September 14, when our supreme leaders in the University Council would provide us with our timetables. Another round of students packed bags, paid deposits and prepared to head for the capital.
Rumours began to emanate from DCU and NUIG that the promised face-to-face time had not materialised in their hastily published timetables, and that some students had been left with zero face-to-face hours per week, others with a few token hours every second week. Here we were being promised what can only have been assumed to be considerable face-to-face time, and our sister universities were falling so far short. Was this a warning sign of things to come? Or did that occur in June, when Cambridge announced they would be going fully online for the 2020/21 academic year? Even in late summer, when reports began to emerge from the US of aborted attempts at in-person reopening and outbreaks at colleges throughout the country: silence.
When timetables finally arrived in mid-September, after hours of complex translation and interpretation of new terms such as “face-to-face hybrid event” and “onlive lecture”, it became apparent that we had been duped. Far from a substantial part of most student’s college hours being conducted in person, most students, particularly those in the Arts & Humanities field, were facing a situation where their presence in Dublin was only required for a handful of hours per week. Quelle surprise.
The most tragic aspect of the college’s response this summer has been the missed opportunities. The opportunity to instruct and advise professors in how to provide interesting, engaging and interactive online classes. The opportunity to demonstrate that the college was truly willing to act in the best interest of students, professors and the cities which host them.
“If colleges truly believed in ensuring the health, safety and learning potential of students, they would have admitted defeat early on, put in place a well-structured online learning system and averted the inevitable scenario of tens of thousands of students being lamped with outrageous housing bills.”
In his fundamental treatise on risk assessment, Kenny Rogers taught us all that: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” Irish colleges got dealt a two of clubs and a four of diamonds, left the table and spent the whole night telling everyone at the bar they would buy the next round with their winnings. There is something admirable in fighting in the face of adversity, and to have your back against the wall but not give up. But there is something much more honourable in admitting defeat and striving to make the most of a dire situation. If colleges truly believed in their mission statement of ensuring the health, safety and learning potential of students, they would have admitted defeat early on, put in place a well-structured online learning system and averted the inevitable scenario of tens of thousands of students being landed with outrageous housing bills for residences which for all intents and purposes are useless.
The government now has a chance to step up to the plate, to fulfil the role it abdicated at the outset of the pandemic. They could bring in assurances for student renters that if they are forced to move home due to national or local lockdowns, they do not lose thousands in rent. They could work to ensure those students who may struggle with online learning due to technological or familial issues are given the best possible opportunities to pursue their studies. They could reassess the student contribution, the highest in Western Europe, and its prohibitive nature for those from low-income families who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“This year has highlighted the dark underbelly of the Irish third level system: its increasing development into a cash-cow which continuously demotes the student experience to a subservient role. Behind its true raison d’etre: profit.”
This year has highlighted the dark underbelly of the Irish third level system, its increasing development into a cash-cow which continuously demotes the student experience to a subservient role. Behind its true raison d’etre: profit. To place the blame for the colleges failing on the government avoids the depressing realities of the situation. How could we expect an Irish government who have shown nothing but disdain for students through increases in the cost of college, reductions in funding for public education and almost zero protection for student renters, to do anything but side with the universities in their break-neck drive to reopen? Yes, the government failed to look after third level students, but ultimately it was the colleges themselves who let us down.