By Jack Parker
It is “highly likely that most or all lectures” will be delivered online next term, according to the Vice Chancellor of Durham University.
Professor Stuart Corbridge confirmed the plans in a wide-ranging email sent to students on Tuesday afternoon (26th May), in which he broadly outlined the University’s current thinking about the 2020-21 academic year, particularly regarding teaching arrangements, finance, and international student numbers.
The Vice Chancellor, who announced last week that he would be retiring in July 2021, summarised that the University has two distinct plans for teaching and contact hours in the next academic year.
Plan A is the “full residential and educational experience” – in other words, running the academic year “as ‘normal’ in the event that Covid-19 disappears over the summer.
However, the email notes that the University does not expect this plan to be feasible by next term, so is instead using its Plan B as the “base case assumption”.
The University does not expect its full residential and educational experience to be feasible next term
The University’s Plan B relates “a spectrum of actions between ‘normal’ and ‘full lockdown’”
It assumes that 2-metre social distancing will remain in place by Autumn 2020, in which case “we can run our teaching estate at about 20% of capacity – a lecture theatre designed for 200 might safely only be able to seat c.40”
The Vice Chancellor confirms that as a result, “it is highly likely that most or all lectures in Michaelmas Term will be ‘online’ and asynchronous”.
However, unlike the University of Cambridge, which has already announced that all 2020-21 lectures will be online-only, Durham University is “not assuming yet” that lectures will have to be online throughout the entire academic year.
Although lectures will primarily be online in Michaelmas term, the current aim is to have students return to Durham regardless.
The University is hoping to provide as many face-to-face contact hours as is safe, with Professor Corbridge adding: “Our aim will be to deliver a large amount of our small group teaching in the same form as we would in any other year, albeit with fewer people in a teaching room or laboratory at any one time.
“We are committed to ensuring that Durham students get the most they can out of being in Durham during these difficult times.”
The University is “facing a doubly difficult year”Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice Chancellor of Durham University
The Vice Chancellor also used his email to address the issue of financial sustainability, writing that lost income means the University is “facing a doubly difficult year.”
The University expects a 20-25% reduction in its total income in the next financial year, a proportion roughly in line with forecasts by other Russell Group universities.
He writes: “We benefit from strong financial governance and we will come together again […] to ensure a cooperative and well thought out response to a challenging financial situation.”
He adds that the student voice will play a key role in discussions regarding the University’s financial situation, since “we want to hear student views on what matters most to your communities.”
Fewer international students means “missing income for universities”Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice Chancellor of Durham University
On the issue of international student numbers, he writes that the University’s “strong working assumption” is that there will be a significant reduction in the number of non-EU international students at Durham next term.
While he laments that this will entail “lost intellectual and cultural exchange for all of us”, it is his comment that fewer international students means “missing income for universities” that has raised some eyebrows.
Posting a screenshot of Professor Corbridge’s words on social media, Ewan Swift, the incoming Durham Students’ Union Welfare and Liberation Officer, questioned: “Do we need any more proof of how universities really see and treat international students?”
Although Professor Corbridge writes that work is ongoing to “ensure wonderful Congregations in the Cathedral for this year’s graduates”, he again did not give any indication of dates for the ceremonies – two months after he originally wrote to students confirming their postponement (27th March).
He concludes the email by emphasising “how sad [he is] that this current cohort of students is having to deal with the pandemic at such an important time in your lives. Please know it will get better.”
Up to 20% of incoming students at Russell Group institutions would consider deferring if universities do not return to normalResearch by the University and College Union (UCU)
Durham is not the first Russell Group university to make such changes to teaching next year.
The University of Manchester has already confirmed that all lectures will be online next term. Newcastle, Exeter, Warwick, Glasgow, and Oxford will be among the other leading universities to offer a mix of remote online learning and face-to-face teaching.
As of yet, it remains unclear whether lectures being online will lead to a significant number of deferrals at Russell Group Universities.
Research by the University and College Union (UCU) suggested that up to 20% of incoming students would consider deferring their places if universities do not return to normal in Autumn.
However, Jo Johnson, the former Universities minister, admitted in a recent interview with LBC that he would be “surprised” if as many as a fifth of students chose to defer.
He said: “When push comes to shove, most people will think ‘well it might not be perfect, but better to get going than to sit around doing nothing’.”
Image: Les Hull via Wikimedia Commons