At the February NUSU Council meeting we invited Professor Chris Day (Vice Chancellor (VC) and President of Newcastle University) along to respond to queries, questions and worries that we know many of you have. A lot of the issues students have faced were because of the ever-changing covid 19 landscape but we wanted to futher probe into the inner workings of the Uni and why they have reached some of their decisions this year. We thank Chris for attending and answering as many questions as he could in the allotted 30mins timeframe. Because of the time limits we merged your unanswered questions together and asked the VC to provide his answers to be published here.
You can watch the livestream here to listen and watch the full meeting including questions to the VC.
· Is the University currently recognising the 9k4What campaign and the issues regarding tuition fees?
· Where are our tuition fees being spent this year? With facilities such as on-campus teaching and now the library, I feel as though we are not getting our money’s worth compared to previous years.
· Students who have been both affected by strikes and the pandemic have had roughly half of their academic teaching time impacted in some way. How will the university repay students for a lack of learning due to these circumstances?
The views of all our students are important to us, and we understand that students are very concerned about tuition fees, and how we spend the income from these. Our aim is to be transparent, and for that reason, we have put together some slides on our website setting out how the fee income is spent.
We particularly sympathise with students this year; students have had a far from normal experience since the beginning of the pandemic, and the disruption for many is ongoing. This was not the student experience we wanted or planned to give you. We are also very aware that some students were affected by industrial action last year.
Throughout the pandemic however we have continued to deliver teaching and learning albeit remotely. While we recognise that online delivery is not the same experience as present-in-person tuition, we have done all that we can to support you in the transition to online learning during these restrictions and my academic colleagues have made every effort to ensure that we are providing you with a good teaching and learning experience to support you to meet the learning outcomes of your programme. In fact, in the most recent Stage Evaluation of Teaching survey which we ran to get feedback from all UG and PGT students, almost 73% of you agreed/strongly agreed the teaching you had received this year had been engaging and interesting and I know how much our teaching staff have valued this positive feedback.
Our libraries are operating a click-and-collect/deliver service and we have significantly increased access to online books and resources to meet student demand. We have study spaces available to students across campus for those students based in Newcastle and are monitoring their usage very closely.
Throughout the pandemic, the health and wellbeing of our students has been and continues to be, our top priority. The University’s critical wellbeing and counselling support services, and our careers advisors, have remained fully available for you to access as and when needed. Over the pandemic, we have spent over half a million pounds providing laptops for students without IT equipment or internet. We have also invested significantly in additional student wellbeing support, including our mental health services and financial hardship support, and these have remained open and accessible throughout successive lockdowns.
In October, when several thousand students had to self-isolate, we initiated support packages including food vouchers and delivery services and a call centre to respond to any students experiencing difficulties.
The Government is clear that there should not be blanket tuition fee refunds, and in line with this, our position is that while we continue to support you to achieve the learning outcomes of your programme, we will not be refunding tuition fees.
· Students are being told they can't have counselling if they’ve had it within 12 months. If their mental health is impacted by their studies, do you think this is sufficient?
The counselling team welcomes students to attend as many assessment appointments as they need. The purpose of these appointments is always to look at what support best meets a student’s needs and decisions are made on an individual basis. If a student has recently had a period of counselling with the Service and is still experiencing the same issues, then the likelihood is that a longer term or more specialist intervention will be needed and the counselling team will help students to link with this service. If students are struggling with their studies due to their mental health then support from the mental health disability practitioners will also be explored.
Counselling and mental health disability support are just two elements of the support we provide. Students can also access the Chaplaincy listening service as often as they would like and we run Wellbeing Workshops on a range of topics, including building confidence and understanding stress and anxiety. These workshops are open to all students as is Silvercloud our online CBT programme. We recently introduced Talk Campus, a free app for students which gives access to 24/7 support and have an additional 24/7 PG helpline staffed by counsellors .
· If campus is being made COVID-19 secure for students with the tuition fees, why are study spaces closed including the Phillip Robinson library?
Our priority throughout the pandemic has been to cater for every student’s needs within the restrictions that have been placed on us in order to keep everyone safe. While access to campus is still limited, our library teams have had to prioritise the online and click and collect services to make sure no student is disadvantaged, wherever they are in the world.
Because of this, we have had to limit access to the Phillip Robinson so we can maintain social distancing and keep everyone safe.
We know our students value the study spaces in our libraries but they represent only a small proportion of the total study spaces across the campus. These include some 24/7 spaces - many with PC provision. Additional study spaces have been added across campus recently and we are working closely with colleagues across the University estate to ensure that these additional and alternative study spaces are maintained and promoted. Information on where these study spaces are, and when they are available, can be found via the study space finder and on the student app.
We have been monitoring the use of the Marjorie Robinson Library Rooms very closely since January – daily capacity has remained between 50-60%, but we appreciate that at peak times it may be necessary to use some of the other study spaces across campus. We have also noted issues with some students booking spaces they subsequently don’t take up, which leaves desks available at short notice. By releasing spaces 48-hrs in advance, we are aiming to offer equitable access to all, as far as this is possible. This is something we will continue to review.
In line with the government’s guidance to allow a small number of additional students to return to campus for essential present in person teaching, we will be increasing our study space offering from Monday 8th March, by extending evening opening hours in the MRLR and Walton library, as well as adding some study spaces in the PRL. We must continue to deliver our staff-intensive print based services, which involve library staff spending long periods in the book stacks, and for this reason, access to the book stacks and the surrounding study areas will remain restricted at this time. It is worth noting that this is in line with access to collections in public libraries, which, in the current government roadmap, may only be able to reopen after 12th April. We fully appreciate how important access to study space is for students and we will continue to respond to current government guidance and make adjustments to library study space availability across all libraries when it is safe to do so.
· Do you think this reduced teaching quality devalues our degree more than you claim a robust safety net would?
We are adapting our teaching in very difficult circumstances. Throughout the pandemic we have continued to deliver teaching and learning albeit remotely. While we recognise that online delivery is not the same experience as present-in-person tuition, we have done all that we can to support you in the transition to online learning during these restrictions and my academic colleagues have made every effort to ensure that we are providing you with a good teaching and learning experience to support you to meet the learning outcomes of your programme. In fact, in the most recent Stage Evaluation of Teaching survey which we ran to get feedback from all UG and PGT students, almost 73% of you agreed/strongly agreed the teaching you had received this year had been engaging and interesting and I know how much our teaching staff have valued this positive feedback.
If you have concerns about the quality of teaching on your programme, you should contact your Head of School or Personal Tutor.
· The VC mentioned not being able to fund rebates without losing spending in other areas - what about the University's £354m of unrestricted reserves?
Unrestricted reserves are not the same as cash. Most of them have been converted to buildings and capital equipment. The only way that we could convert them to cash would be to sell them – which we can’t do as we need them for both teaching and research.
· The VC mentioned the hardship fund, but isn’t there also a case that all students (including PGRs and UGs) have been impacted by COVID-19, and a certain amount of support should be given as blanket support to all without work for individuals and staff handling individual applications?
Student Financial Support is available for all students to apply to who face financial difficulties – regardless of their level of study. Our aim is to ensure that help goes to those students who need it most and for that reason, we don’t use a blanket approach.
Any student who is experiencing financial difficulties and needs help can apply to the Student Financial Support Fund (UK students) or the Financial Assistance Fund (international and EU students). To support social distancing measures, the team have suspended face-to-face appointments, so completed application forms and supporting documentation must be submitted by email to email@example.com.
The team will make every effort to process your application as quickly as possible, and ensure our University community has access to the student money help and support they need.
· Why doesn't Newcastle cover maternity leave for university funded PGR students like many other universities do?
PGRs have different terms and conditions of employment to colleagues with an open-ended or fixed term contracts. We are looking at the PGR role as part of our long-term strategy within the ‘Casualisation’ programme and this will be considered as part of the next phase of this work.
· For PGR students, why have there been no blanket extensions to their deadlines? This would be minimal cost to the Uni but would make a real difference to the students and would negate the significant paperwork for both them and staff associated with submitting individual requests.
I want to begin by reassuring you that, where Covid-19 has affected the progress of your research and/or writing up your thesis, we support tuition fee-free extensions to minimum candidature and thesis submission deadlines and will continue to do so for as long as it is needed to support our students – even if you are in your first year now. This applies to all students at all stages of research.
Where primary research has been disrupted by the pandemic, we will support a tuition fee-free extension to your minimum candidature to enable you to complete this research. We will continue this support for as long the disruption continues. Further information is available here.
For some students now, it is their writing up and the preparation for the submission of their thesis that has been affected. We have supported tuition fee-free extensions to submission deadlines due to Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and will continue to do so. At present, we are supporting these for students with submission deadlines up to 31 October 2021, but we know that students in the early stages of their studies will also be impacted and may require extra time in due course.
For students with thesis submission deadlines after the 31 October 2021, we would encourage you to record the challenges you have faced and continue to face through your supervisory meetings
and/or annual progress review, so that you can apply for an extension at an appropriate time, once you are in a position to assess the full impact of Covid-19 on the progress of your research. We will consider each student’s case on an individual basis recognising that the impact of the pandemic will vary according to personal circumstances and the nature of the research undertaken and as such the length of extension provided will reflect the needs of each student.
Please be reassured that we will not forget the impact that Covid-19 has and continues to have and we will keep these fee free extensions required as a result on the impact of Covid-19 in place as long as it is necessary to support our students.
· Will Newcastle allow international students a 10-day return window to catch up in time with UK students because as quarantine does not seem to be ending any time soon?
As ever, we’ll be following Government guidance in terms of the staggered return to campus and we will ensure that we tell students as soon as we’re able to that they can return, and that we’re as flexible as possible for our international students, recognising the additional challenges they face as a result of the requirement to quarantine.
· What specific actions has the university taken to protect our interests since the cyber-attack?
Staff in our IT department have been working extremely hard to ensure security online for our students and staff. After a detailed investigation and restoration of systems following the cyber incident, we are introducing a new measure – Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) - to help secure our online services and safeguard personal information. MFA makes the University login more secure. It requires an extra security step to sign into University IT services (Office 365, Teams and Canvas) just like online banking.
This change will help our IT team to keep all our information, data and systems more secure. In the ongoing fight against cyber crime, passwords are no longer enough. Hackers can steal passwords, giving access to your information. We are in the process of registering our staff for MFA now, and will be asking all our students to register for MFA. You will hear from the Academic Registrar on this shortly. Still not got your answers? You can always contact the Sabbatical Officer team here with feedback, questions and thoughts. Contact Kay Hattam if you would like to learn more about NUSU Council and our democratic structures.