Question Time With The Vice Chancellor

Join your Welfare Officer, Hayley as she asks your questions to the Vice Chancellor, Graham Galbraith and the Pro Vice Chancellor of Global Engagement and Education Partnerships, Chris Chang.

Your Welfare Officer, Hayley, interviewed Vice Chancellor, Graham Galbraith and Pro Vice Chancellor of Global Engagement and Education Partners, Chris Chang. Tune in to the interview below as they answer your questions, or scroll a little further to see the transcript of the video.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to answer all of your submitted questions in the interview, but they will be answered in an article soon on the website. If you have any more questions, please contact your Elected Officer Team at electedofficers@upsu.net

Why has our Christmas break been cut to 2 weeks and with this in mind, considering move-in is staggered for September/October for safety measures, how do you expect every single student to return safely in the first week of January?

GG: We’ve got to make compromised decisions and we debated at UEB what the best option would be. We certainly feel that delaying the start of the academic year to the 5th October was absolutely the right thing to do, but we want to ensure that students who plan to graduate in 2021 can do so in the time they would normally graduate and we don’t want that decision to delay the start of term which would delay everything else in the following academic year. Students also didn’t want us to take out study weeks because it really matters to students so we didn’t want to take those out. However that means we have had to make other compromises in terms of the lengths of breaks that students have throughout the year.

CC: I think the delay in the start of the academic year has given the opportunity to help new students settle in and sort their A-level results out if they are joining us. Due to Covid-19, students who plan to move into halls; instead of arrival weekend, it will begin 2-3 weeks before the term starts. This will mean that not everyone will be moving in at the same time so that students are able to join us in a Covid safe environment. I know that there is a reduction in the Easter holidays next year and a one week reduction in the assessment marking period to be able to balance that year out. All of us are working together to keep everyone safe in a way that enables us to deliver the next academic year in a way that enhances student experience - that is our top priority in all that we do.

GG: We’ve also been working really hard with accommodation providers as well as the delayed term start has implications for students moving into halls and accommodation. I just got news that Unite Students will not be charged rent for the first two weeks. This is the same for the University-owned accommodation.

Students are needing to plan for the new academic year, getting part-time jobs etc. When can students expect their timetables, are these likely to be delayed?

CC: We normally release students timetables 2-3 weeks before the start of term. However this year's timetabling will be extremely complex and it is likely that we will have staggered starts. For example, some lectures will start on the hour, some will start 30 minutes in the hour to manage the flow and movement of students throughout campus. We hope that this year students will get their timetables 3-4 weeks before the term starts and we are working very hard to ensure that we have a timetable that works for everyone. We will be renting some of the spaces in Guildhall hall for the next 3 months to enable us to have the space to deliver the blended and connected learning that students need.

GG: We expect that this year timetabling will look lighter this year than in previous years as some learning will be delivered online. My biggest concern for students is the availability of part-time work. Venues are starting to open again such as restaurants, bars and pubs and students can get jobs in them, however this makes it even more important that we look after our students and work together to keep each other safe and avoid another lockdown.

Why are masks only optional and not mandatory? Especially since some seminars are going to be face-to-face and usually you work closely with peers in these seminars?

GG: We will be strongly encouraging students and staff to wear masks at any time when they are in a building. We are looking around issues on how we can enforce this. However for people who cannot wear a mask due to medical reasons, we have to approach this very sensitively. I hope that the community will be sensible to protect themselves and their fellow students and staff. If we are in a situation where a student continually refuses to wear a mask, we need to look at how we approach this. I hope that students will follow the government advice and guidance that is given.

CC: We are following government advice very closely. Where it changes, we change our advice. In buildings where 2 metre social distancing is possible we expect students to follow that guidance. However in buildings where it is only 1 metre plus, then it would be required to wear a mask. This includes teaching spaces and labs. We want to give students options on how they identify themselves if they can’t wear a mask due to medical reasons and how to approach this in a sympathetic and empathetic way to avoid any anguish or anxiety.

GG: We will have face shields available for those specific circumstances. One of the most important safety measures is basic hygiene which is sanitizing your hands and wiping down computer surfaces after you use them, and the University will be equipped with these materials around campus. The key message is to look out for yourself and for others.

If I have some face to face teaching but am too anxious to come in, will this have an impact on my attendance?

CC: No - if you are unable to join us for whatever circumstances they may be, students can attend classes online. Some courses and modules that require hands-on experience will be different and may require students to be on campus to do that. We would like students to join us when they can, but we also recognise that there are circumstances where they can’t and all staff are working hard to enable students to be able to study online. Each course and module will vary in how teaching will be delivered and we will try to make sure that students get an experience as similar as they would’ve in a normal classroom.

GG: The challenge of coming out of lockdown is easing people into the environment that they feel safe in and trying to encourage them to participate, so I understand that students will be nervous. The safety measures we have put in place are probably more secure than many of the measures that have been in place in the hospitals! The university environment is a good environment for students to start to take that step into the normal world and overcoming that sense of fear is important. We’re trying hard to continue face-to-face learning because students have said that they want it, but we are also doing it because we know it’s valuable in terms of their educational experience and development. Although we can accommodate students studying fully online, I would really encourage students to take that first step; the University is well laid out, has good social distancing, and people are being safe and sensible.

What will happen if I get coronavirus symptoms when I'm supposed to move to Portsmouth, what should I do?

GG: Students who are preparing to come to Portsmouth and have symptoms first of all need to do what the government says which is quarantine for 14 days. They should keep in touch with us about what the situation is and may have to sort out delaying their arrival appropriately. If symptoms emerge shortly after they arrive, the University is now one of the first universities in the country to have a test centre on campus which means students can book online for a Covid-19 test and walk-in to get tested. If a student is tested positive, then we will know the results and know who has been in contact with that student and get them tested. This will hopefully put a lot of students' minds at ease as we can act very quickly and this will be key to keeping the campus safe.

CC: There will be other ways that we can identify symptoms. For example, there will be temperature sensors in key buildings to detect high temperatures before students enter the building, and students with high temperatures can self-isolate themselves and get tested to reduce the risk of the virus spreading to others.

GG: We are also looking at the possibility of tests for people who don’t have symptoms. We’re in discussions with the Portsmouth hospitals University Trust and sign a contract with them to allow us to assign random tests and tests for individuals who just want to know as some people may not get symptoms but still have the virus. We also encourage students to inquire about getting a seasonal flu vaccination before they come to the University to eliminate the circumstances that symptoms might be from the flu. We can support students and staff on campus who may wish to get a flu vaccination.

How will access to open learning areas and usable resources (such as computers) work, during peak periods?

GG: We’re looking at how we can create as many open access areas for students to work in as possible. The Guildhall will also be used to help create more spaces for students to use. For some students they will be concerned about laptop availability and we are currently extending and expanding our laptop loan scheme so that students have that mobility to access the online materials they need. We are also considering those students who need higher specification software. 

CC: The open access areas with PCs will have antibacterial wipes for students to use each time they’ve used the computers, however there will still be limited capacity for these areas. The laptop loan scheme will provide students with the online learning materials they need from wherever they are in order to mitigate the reduced capacity of open access areas. I don’t think we will ever, at this point in time without the Covid-19 vaccine, go back to the pre-Covid crowded and big numbers of people in one space.

GG: The library will also be looking at creating a live booking system for students instead of walk-ins due to limited capacity, which means students will have to be less spontaneous and plan their interactions a bit more, just like in restaurants at the moment. At the moment you can already look online to see what open access areas are available so we need to make sure that’s operating properly and fully extend it to help students plan daily.

Do “contact hours” mean physical face-to-face or online?

GG: Contact hours will include online as a means to replace large lecture interactions. The plan is for online lectures and sessions to be interactive and engaging for students, not just sitting in your room and being presented lecture slides. Some of my colleagues have some really great ideas that they’re working on and I think it will be really interesting as we go through this period of time to see what is working well as what isn’t working well for students from their feedback. Lecturers have been asked to give a minimum of 6 hours face-to-face teaching per week, but this will vary depending on which course you’re on. I think it’s important for students to have some element of real face-to-face contact instead of having everything online.

CC: Students who are required to do field work as part of their course will be able to continue this in a Covid safe environment.

GG: It is important that students get a full and complete equivalent education despite the circumstances we are facing. However we need to deliver more online hours in some cases.

HTM: Over the past few months we, at The Students’ Union, have been making sure students can feedback their experiences to us and we will continue to share that with the University and in the Covid-19 workstreams during the next academic year.

CC: We do value student feedback to make sure that in all of our planning, student interests are at the forefront.

GG: It’s exciting to see what we can do together as a community to make this work and we can do that by feeding back and listening to each other as well as compromising where we need to. We recognise that for some people it’s going to be hard getting back out into the real world again and we need to be respectful to each other and look out for each other’s safety.

We received several questions from students around no detriment and dissatisfaction, what practices are you putting in place for the upcoming year in regards to this?

GG: I think we ended up in a good place this year in terms of the way we approach things. We will continue to learn from the experience from the last academic year and we will implement the right practices where appropriate. We want our students to be successful and equally, we want the efforts and hard work of students to be recognised. We want to make sure that we are fair to students using good assessment practices that work. There are some elements of it that we can build in permanently into the way we operate at the University. We look to the Ofs and the QAA for their guidance on academic standards and they are concerned about algorithms for honors classifications. We currently have three different algorithms for determining degree classifications so that students can get the best outcome.

One thing we have learned over the course of this is to talk more and to work more with the Students’ Union to consider student feedback on this.

CC: During lockdown, things changed very suddenly and even assessments had to be changed quickly, so no-detriment practices were right in that context. In this coming academic year we need to recognise that colleagues are planning for the entire year in a completely different way, as well as how we do assessments and achieving the learning outcomes so that a student engages appropriately throughout the year, there shouldn’t be any need to rely on no-detriment practices. We don’t want graduates to be judged as ‘the group of students who were given more flexibility because they were subjects of Covid’, which may cause employers to question the value of their degree, and we don’t want that. Instead we want our graduates to demonstrate that they obtained their degree because they worked hard and earned their degree through their own achievements, not because of any leeway or flexibility.

The benefit of online learning is that students can have longer to learn the content and reflect on it how ever many times they need to help your understanding in a better way.

GG: The no-detriment practices were an extension of what we do anyway, but there are still lessons to be learned. In ways of assessing, I think some things have worked quite well and some of this you will see replicated in this next year. What I would like us to do as a community is to reshape what a campus-based learning experience looks like to get an optimum balance between online learning and traditional learning. The current university procedures enable us to look at individual circumstances to support students rather than a blanket approach.

HTM: I think in the end we came to a really good agreement and a lot of students benefited from the no-detriment practices. Students really valued that they were listened to by the university. As we come into next year with a blended learning approach, I think some elements of no-detriment practices should be carried over next year to be able to support students even more.

With International students still expected to pay full tuition fees of £16,400, what concessions or scholarships are available for international students within the university and how will you ensure the quality of teaching is still the same?

CC: We already have a range of scholarships available for international students. Even if students cannot join us in the next blended academic year, the expectation is that they still join us but online. We believe that we will deliver the education in a value-for-money way. We have provided the scholarships where appropriate, but we cannot discount the tuition fees for one group of students, but not for others. All universities will be struggling this year as there will be a reduction of students, therefore, a reduction of income, so we’re trying to manage it as best as we can. Students have the option to study online in TB1, then if they want to, join us at the start of TB2. They also have the option to delay their course until January if their course allows it.

The experience of studying in the UK in a multicultural university is still valuable for international students and it’s not just about getting a qualification. What distinguishes us as the University of Portsmouth is the experience that we give to students as part of the hallmarks of a Portsmouth graduate, which you can’t learn from just learning all online at home. It’s about the networking, the skills such as employability and personal development, as well as developing a global mindset.

GG: It would be a shame for international students to miss out on coming to the campus next year, but we recognise that some students cannot physically travel here from another country. In those circumstances we want to support international students in the best way we can and that is by providing a personalised, first-class educational experience that reflects the values of the University of Portsmouth. To provide this quality of education online is just as extensive and we’re investing a significant amount of online materials for this to happen.

What actions are you taking to support International students in regards to time zone differences or access to materials if there are restrictions to access in certain countries?

CC: That is something that the course leads are taking into account, particularly in terms of how the material is delivered. Some will be delivered asynchronous, and some will be delivered synchronous, so that will reflect on the time zones.

Where tuition fees are remaining the same during a period of blended learning, what is the University doing to ensure value for money?

GG: We probably won’t have the same number of students next year and some universities will be struggling next year with managing costs. We’re in a fortunate position that we have a reasonable reserve in the bank so we can suffer a deficit in a period of time. Students will be getting a good experience at the University of Portsmouth because we will be able to face this financial difficulty. We have the financial capability to put measures in place across campus and we have invested in new technology for the provision and delivery of high quality online learning, but that’s not to say it’s easy; it’s going to be a really tough year for the executive team to manage finances throughout the year. Provisions for students will be good, but different of course, then any other year and that is our commitment. We are building a university for a long term and we want graduates to encourage their future families to go to the University of Portsmouth and say “look what it did for me!”.

This university is here forever and strong forever where our decision making is about the long-term for the security and success of the university. That’s only possible if we give students the very best experience we can under those circumstances. 

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