EXCLUSIVE: Details of ‘Unbound Education’ proposal uncovered, as Senate prepares to vote

By Imogen Usherwood, and

Durham University’s Senate will vote on the proposed plans to offer online degrees on Wednesday 22nd April, after the original meeting on the 15th April was postponed by a week. 

Senate, the University’s supreme governing body, will vote on the proposals detailed in a document called ‘Unbound Education: Creating a Sustainable Future for Durham University’. This document is based on another file entitled ‘Redesigning Durham’s Educational Offer’, which Palatinate exclusively revealed on Wednesday 15th April. Academic staff have described the differences between ‘Unbound Education’ and ‘Redesigning Durham’s Educational Offer’ as “cosmetic” in nature.

Covid-19 has required us all to make radical changes

Professor Antony Long, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

In an email sent to all students this morning (Friday 17th April), Professor Antony Long, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, stressed that these plans are contingency measures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. He said: “Covid-19 has required us all to make radical changes, including moving teaching and assessment online, which will continue into the Easter term.

“While this is still ongoing, we must also plan for the 2020/21 academic year and beyond. None of us yet know what the next academic year will look like. But we must plan now, so that when we do know, we have options ready to implement. This is why the Unbound Education paper considers the delivery of education online and at a distance.” 

Going beyond the 2020/21 academic year, the ‘Unbound Education’ proposals, seen by Palatinate, continue to emphasise “a significant refocusing of the University’s education strategy” that will seek to increase “participation in innovative programmes that are primarily taught online”. 

The ‘Unbound Education’ proposals are a resolution to introduce online-only degree courses alongside the residential, in-person courses that the University already offers. The proposed model would see eight new online, non-residential study programmes being offered by the University from October 2020. These eight courses will be “selected on the basis of international market potential”, and the requirement that they meet Durham’s ‘standard for online delivery’. 

The proposals are a resolution to introduce online-only degree courses

Existing degree programmes will also be moved online, in the first instance to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. The ‘Unbound Education’ document states that “we must assume that all instruction will be delivered online at the least through the end of Michaelmas Term”. The document also acknowledges that “Durham staff have limited experience in this area.” 

In order to implement this, the document proposes to “cut or put on hold” 25% of all academic modules which are due to be taught in the 2020-21 academic year. Palatinate understands that the process of selecting which modules to cut will be a collaborative one, involving faculties’ Executive Deans, the Provost Board and University Executive Committee. Professor Long’s email said that “these are proposals for discussion”. 

Details from the Durham Unbound document suggest that, should these proposals be approved next week, each faculty will have until 1st June to “identify 25% of undergraduate and postgraduate modules currently scheduled to be taught in 2020/21 that will be either cut or put on hold”.

The proposals have been met with hostility from Durham University academic staff. Over 300 Durham academics signed a letter to Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge, labelling the proposals “highly concerning, […] cynical and reckless”. 

Each faculty will have until 1st June to identify modules to “cut or put on hold”

The University and Colleges Union (UCU) have also condemned the proposal: “Universities should not see the global pandemic as an opportunity to try and drastically alter their different business models, and that Durham had to consult properly with staff and students over any changes”.

Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary, added: “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.

A senior member of the University administration, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The proposals have almost nothing to say about pedagogy, the motivation is certainly financial. It’s a desperate gamble, I’m afraid, with huge risks for the University’s ability to function, its reputation, and indeed its financial future.

Durham needs to halt these plans

Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary

“The plans are not credible and do not have the support of the staff of the University. However that doesn’t mean they won’t be passed by Senate.” 

Palatinate has obtained a draft of a document that is due to be circulated to staff in one department in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. The document states: “These proposals confuse the issues of immediate-term contingency planning and long-term enhancement of Durham’s educational offer in ways that are likely to hinder the achievement of the objectives of both’ and ‘crucially, they represent a serious risk to the University’s reputation and financial standing in their neglect of what ought to be the first priority in a crisis, namely the protection of core provision and mitigation of impact on students and staff alike”.

In a previous statement to Palatinate, Professor Antony Long said: ““We want to ensure we can continue to deliver the highest possible quality of educational offer for both current and future students within a strong collegiate and academic community.

“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.”

The news that Durham University is considering delivering online degrees alongside its in-person courses, which was originally reported in Palatinate on 15th April, has since been nationally reported in the Times, the Guardian and the BBC.

Image by Maddie Flisher

The Editors-in-Chief of Palatinate, and Imogen Usherwood, also spoke to Gabriel Radus and Bill Pain of Purple Radio about the latest updates on ‘Unbound Education’. Find the podcast report here: https://anchor.fm/purple-radio-news-team/episodes/Breaking-News-Report–17042020–Unbound-Education-ectfoc

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