Interview: Graham Virgo on online lectures, fresher deferrals, the news leak and fees

The Tab’s interview with Cambridge’s Senior-Pro-Vice-Chancellor in full

The Tab Cambridge met with Cambridge’s Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor today to discuss the University’s plans for the next academic year, news of online-only lectures, clarification regarding refunds, and other issues.

Lectures are going to be online next year. Will university fees still be the same considering student learning will be disrupted?

Student tuition fees will remain the same. We are not intending student education to be significantly disrupted. The decision has only been a decision about lectures. Lectures will still happen, they will be online, they will be recorded. All the other aspects of education will still continue. So we are still planning for supervisions, small group teaching, seminars, small practical to occur.

“I need to caveat all of that by reference to what the circumstances are at the time to the extent we are able to within the confines of social distancing, all the other teaching will occur face-to-face and they’ll be all the learning opportunities: access to libraries etc, they’ll still be available. It is only one part of the learning package that we’re planning to change and of course one that will kept under review. The intention is this will be the highest possible quality educational experience. We really want online lectures to be the best possible experience they can be and other types of learning, but we still need to work that one through”.

Are there plans for labs and practicals that aren’t small groups? What’s the plan for them at the moment?

So, I’ve actually just had a meeting where we’ve been looking at the issue of practicals and this is not easy. So the intention is we want as many students as possible to come back to Cambridge. We want them to be in Cambridge and in their colleges. We want them to have access to practicals when they need that, obviously depending on the subject. It will depend what the requirements on social distancing are that are being developed. If they are in a teaching lab space, you can only have 25 per cent of the students at any one time. We would then need to have four practicals – the same practicals but for different students.

“One of the advantages of saying lectures go online is suddenly the timetable becomes much freer and it enables a bit more flexibility in what we’re doing – it will depend on the nature of the practical as to how we do it. I am not the expert on that, but there are people in faculties and departments that are starting to look at that. I will add, it’s not just practicals for STEM students – arts, humanities, social sciences students will need access to resources, archives, libraries. We need to ensure we can provide that but in socially distanced way.”

We’ve heard reports there are lecturers who didn’t know about the news until it was leaked. Is this true?

 “What happened was, there have been discussions. We have various task forces – the University is divided up into six schools. They were all represented and colleges were represented. Because faculties and departments are already planning and need a framework for that, they were given guidance on Tuesday so that went to faculties and departments and obviously not all of them are circulating amongst everyone.

“We’re not hiding anything from students, because actually student reps, CUSU, GU president and other CUSU offices have been involved in the discussions. You reach a point where you decide you want to communicate to faculties and departments to assist with planning. It is unfortunate that a small part of what our educational provision is about got publicity relating to the online lectures, because it does suggest that everything is online and that could not be further from the truth.”

Will the University let incoming freshers defer their place if they feel they are not getting the student experience they signed up for?

“So the first thing is to say, we are doing everything we possibly can to ensure that all students, including freshers, will get the best possible student experience, education and whole student experience within the limitations of the Covid response. If a student, an offer holder, says in the light of what we’ve said we want you to defer our place, we are not going to consider that until later in the summer. Crucially if a student wishes to defer for what we may describe as normal reasons, and a student has been ill for example or their family circumstances are very difficult, we usually would consider an application for deferral.”

Why are you only launching online lectures now? Consider that many students, especially disabled students, have been asking for this for years?

“What we have been doing in the past is working hard to ensure that lectures are made as inclusive as we possibly can and we’ve been developing the lecture capture project. There are some faculties and departments that have captured lectures. That’s not online lectures, that’s simply a recording of the lecture. Some of that is what will happen next year. Some of that is what has been happening this term, but others because of the context we’re in, there’s an opportunity to reflect on what the lecture is and how we deliver the material etc.

“Our focus is very much on blended learning. Blended learning is one of those terms you hear a lot about. Flipping the classroom is when you have an online lecture or material first and then you have a discussion. On that, we already do that already really with our supervision system but we’re developing that. I think there’s an opportunity here for the benefit of all students. What would be really concerning is if we said we’re doing this and we said we’re not worried about quality – absolutely not – we want it to be the best possible whole education package it can be.”

If the online lectures are successful and, following the pandemic, students are still asking for this package in regard to disabilities – would there be an option for this online education scheme to continue?

“The answer must be yes and we would have to reflect on it and then maybe, it depends very much on the subject and how it’s being delivered and we’d have to evaluate it very carefully. This term we put some lectures and teaching online and we got the online assessments online and we’re going to evaluate that really carefully to see what the lessons learnt are. We will be doing that at every point in the year. And if we find that actually this is really working, greater opportunity for student experience etc, why wouldn’t we change that?

“If all evolves and gives us actually a better form of education, bearing in mind with the other elements as well, why would we wish to go backwards? I’m not making any judgements on that, but we’d have to evaluate it. This is not us putting a sticky plaster on a particular problem, we actually really want to engage with it properly.”

Do you foresee other social distancing regulations to college life? E.g bops, ents, and balls?

That one is up the air. All I will say is that we’re honestly reflecting across the board to what implications of social distancing and lockdown are. And Cambridge people are very creative – so if we are trying to run a bop in a social distanced way, I’m sure we’ll find a way to do it.”

Personally, how do you feel about the leak of information regarding online lectures?

“It’s always unfortunate when a document that has one particular purpose is regarded as being the absolutely clear and final public facing statement obviously and clearly that document wasn’t. My biggest concern is the way offer holders and existing students are seeing this and are quite understandably assuming this is a more significant change to next year than we are planning. We are still intending to have a very clear communication approach for students and offer holders.

“Statements will be going out later today to offer holders and to staff. Colleges are communicating with existing students just to provide that degree of clarity. We are going to carry on communicating as our plans develop. This is not the University wishing to be secret at all.”

 Have you had requests for refunds?

“There have been some requests coming through this term and we have very clear guidance as to how we will approach those requests. Because there is a process, students need to go through that process. What I will say is that we have all been working very hard this term to give our students the best possible educational experience we can in incredibly challenging circumstances. And ‘we’ is the University and colleges – that is some lectures, supervisions, seminars, the assessments and also all the support that the University and colleges are providing. The welfare support is incredibly important and we are still doing that.”

Between when the email was leaked and this afternoon when the University will make an official announcement, why has it taken almost a day for that announcement to come out officially?

“Because we have needed to do a lot of consulting in the University and the colleges. So since yesterday there has been an awful lot of consultation and discussion, making sure that all the right people are involved in those discussions. We are a very complex institution and to make sure that all the colleges are content with the statements and that we can respond to them at the same time, so the statement to undergraduate and postgraduate offer holders is inevitably going to be something different. And also we are doing a lot of planning of work relating to the running of the University and planning for next year as well. We’ve all had other meetings and stuff going on.” 

Do you think how the University has dealt with Covid-19 has been a success so far?

“I have been incredibly impressed with how staff and students have responded to extraordinary circumstances and a really uncertain time. Everybody has stepped up and I would never say that what we have put in place is perfect. But, bearing in mind on the assessment front, we in a very short space of time had to put into place a completely new approach to assessment. I am incredibly grateful for the hard work that everyone has put in to get there. As I say, we’re going to be evaluating what we do all the time to make sure that what we have next year is better, and that is absolutely our commitment.  We can actually plan for next year to make it the best possible education that we can.”

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons