Bristol Uni Vice Chancellor Hugh Brady

Bristol Uni VC says no tuition fee refunds as online systems are ‘expensive’

Brady says face to face teaching is ‘worth it’

With so many questions around how Bristol Uni will operate this year, and with the backdrop of campuses nationwide experiencing Covid outbreaks, The Bristol Tab sat down (virtually) with Hugh Brady to talk about the year ahead.

Students have been calling for tuition reductions to compensate for the reduced face to face teaching, but the VC of Bristol Uni has said that tuition discounts or refunds are not an option because online teaching is “expensive”.

Brady insisted that students will not receive an “inferior product’, and said the uni is considering publishing where tuition fees are spent this year.

He said that being back on campus will be a case of “managing risk” to prevent an outbreak, saying “it’s about living with the virus”.

Minutes after the interview, the Bristol UCU (staff trade union) voted to oppose all face to face teaching this academic year, threatening industrial action if necessary.

The old way of doing things “was not a satisfactory situation”

In response to questions about why full fees are being charged this year, Brady said that online learning platforms are “expensive”, and insisted that students are not being short-changed.

He said: “On refunds, this has been very expensive to do. It’s not just the hours, but the additional investment and resources that we’ve had to make to give us that blended learning outcome.”

“What we will end up doing is actually calculating [the cost] so that students can understand where the money is going to.”

When questioned about the differences to previous years, such as much more limited seating in study centres, he responded defensively, strongly defending the quality of the offering this year.

“Your implication is that it’s an inferior product. It is a very different product, it is a very different experience, as is everything in life during this awful situation.”

He went on to say that lecture attendance has gone down over previous years with students accessing much of the material online, but students and staff had fed back that there was more participation and engagement on digital platforms.

“From our own academic staff, you’re noticing that they have much more engagement than ever before, which has got to be a good thing. So in a way, it’s almost democratised the learning space to an extent.”

The university has hired private security and Covid marshals for campus

Hugh Brady is very much hoping that what has been happening in Scotland and at other universities will be a “wake up call” for students and staff, saying “I hope students will have learned from that, because clearly students want to come back.”

He says that if students want to continue face to face learning, they must follow the rules in place on campus, or they risk disciplinary measures. To aid in that, the university has also hired private security and around 60 marshals that will be enforcing the Covid regulations on campus.

The marshals will be students hired to direct and give advice, however private security will operate in halls of residence dispersing large groups and ensuring that Freshers are following the rules.

He says that the onus is on the community to follow the rules in order to avoid situations like at St Andrews or in Manchester, where students are unable to leave their halls of residence.

When pushed on whether private security could be used to ensure students stay inside halls of residence, he criticised Manchester Metropolitan University saying “I would not see us behaving that way.”

He added: “My appeal to students is to look at what’s happened elsewhere, and ensure we’re not in that place, and the way to ensure we’re not in that place is by behaving responsibly together.

“If they want to continue to have the on-campus, in-person experience, if they want to continue to have different, but a good social life, then they have to follow the rules because this thing can change so quickly.

“If necessary, we will apply our disciplinary code which includes everything from fines all the way through to expulsion at the other end.”

“We’re not willing to rely solely on the NHS system”

Given the outbreaks in other universities and the near-collapse of the NHS Test and Trace system, we asked about the university’s reliance on that very service.

“It is a worry about national testing capability in terms of our ability as a country to control the virus. I would say that this is our biggest priority.”

He said that the university is already running in-house testing for certain students whose teaching must be in-person, such as Medicine, Dentistry, and Veterinary students, but that they are in negotiations to secure access to private testing as well.

However, mass testing was “never part of our discussions”, and he said that their in-house advisory group and links to national SAGE have been “extraordinarily helpful” in designing a safe campus.

He added that starting the academic year later than other universities has allowed Bristol to see the problems elsewhere, and therefore ensure that the campus has the right rules in place.

“I think that combination of our own in-house platform coupled with greater NHS capacity, backed up by the private provider will certainly give me the confidence that I need.”

“We’re in this together.”

Brady very much insisted that Bristol Uni is a community, and everyone must follow the rules to ensure that there is not an outbreak of Covid.

He acknowledged that many in the local community were nervous with students coming back, but said that these mitigation measures should be enough to keep everyone safe.

It is clear that the university’s strategy relies on students following the guidelines set out in order to continue with face to face teaching, although that may well be interrupted by staff taking industrial action.

Although he doesn’t envisage locking Freshers in halls of residences, as in Manchester, the extra security presence on campus does drive home the seriousness of the rules, and how important it is that they are followed.

“If there was ever a time for our community to work together to try and live safely with the virus, this has got to be it.”

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