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Survey: Students Seek Academic Relief as Struggle With Virtual College Continues

We surveyed a group of UCD students pursuing mainly undergraduate degrees at the university. In recent weeks, there has been growing demand from students for the implementation of a No-Detriment policy in universities. Online petitions have gained well over 10,000 signatures nationwide. UCD students have been learning remotely since March 23rd as the current university shutdown has prompted the introduction of online learning for the remainder of the academic year. Thousands of students nationwide have called for academic leniency, claiming some may face disadvantages. The National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) have announced measures that closely reflect student demands, with NCAD introducing a “Safety-Net” policy which has successfully been introduced in a number of UK universities. To find out more about what students are going through, we surveyed 579 UCD students on the matter.

Over 95% of respondents said they would support a ‘No-Detriment’ policy if defined as follows: “Any mark received in an assessment that is below your current GPA will be GPA-neutral (this will not lower your current GPA). Any mark received in an assessment that is above your current GPA will increase your GPA accordingly. If you pass your assessments, you will only increase your GPA from its current average.”

The sample was representative, with a relative spread of students participating from UCD’s Faculties. 61% of respondents were female, while 36% were male. There was a higher level of interest from stages 3 and above, potentially suggesting a spike in interest in a no-detriment policy from students with more at stake from this trimester’s assessments. 42% indicated they are due to scheduled to graduate following the end of this trimester. 

248 students said that they emailed UCD Deputy President and Registrar Prof. Mark Rogers, or other UCD staff members, appealing to them to implement a No-Detriment policy in UCD. 118 students indicated that they have contacted a TD to appeal for support for a No-Detriment policy. 

41% of rural students described their internet connection as poor, and 33% described it as fair. Less than 5% described their internet connection in rural Ireland as excellent. Contrast this with Dublin students – only 14% describe their connection as poor and 11% indicate an excellent connection. With virtual college requiring a strong internet connection for a number of activities, these statistics suggest a barrier to education based upon geographical location and broadband strength. Overall, a significant number of students reported difficulties experienced as a result of poor internet connection. Students have indicated that existing connection difficulties have been worsened by the increase in household members working from home and recreational intake of online media. 

Almost 60% said they lived with other third level students. Hundreds of students have also written in detail to us and indicated the stresses stemming from multiple students using the same study space and internet connection. 

The statistics show that students are reasonably unsatisfied with the current system of online learning at UCD, as 3 in 5 students indicated a level of dissatisfaction with the system.

68% of respondents indicated a level of dissatisfaction with their study environment at home, with hundreds of students citing significant disruption to their studies as a result. 

87% of students said they had experienced a large increase in academic pressure as a result of the current situation. 38% selected the most extreme option, indicating a significant increase in academic pressure. 

We also asked students about their employment status. Less than 3% are working full-time jobs, 18% are working part-time jobs, a quarter of students are currently employed but the business has temporarily shut, 11% were permanently let go of my job due to circumstances surrounding COVID-19 restrictions. 42% indicated that they are not currently employed and working. 

A working group has been set up within UCD which has proposed a number of recommendations to the Academic Council Executive Committee (ACEC). We asked students how they felt about three recommendations that UCD Students’ Union representatives have indicated are being proposed by the working group, as well as other potential measures. A meeting took place today in which a decision was agreed upon, with an announcement expected to come from the university and the Students’ Union tomorrow.  

The first recommendation allows for two further trimesters in which students can resit exams they have both passed and failed; something that has been criticised by final year students who wish to graduate as soon as possible. Just 28% have said they are in favour of this policy. 19% responded ‘maybe’, 16% responded ‘unsure’, and 35% are not in favour of the policy. 

The other two recommendations have received more support from students. The second potential policy is a firm guideline handed down to lecturers, instructing them how to grade assignments to account for the difficulties of studying during this crisis. These guidelines would strongly tie this trimester’s grades to past performance, both on an individual level and on a cohort level (i.e., if you are a B-average student, this term’s grades would be in that vicinity). 58% of respondents are in favour of this policy, with just 13% against its implementation. 

The third potential policy has received the most support, with almost 65% in favour. The policy would implement a revised Extenuating Circumstances policy for the current crisis that would speed up approvals for people dealing with difficult circumstances and beyond the “baseline” difficulty of studying under the current health crisis. 14% are not in favour of this recommendation.

We asked students whether the above three policies were enough to assist them during this time. 39% responded ‘yes’, while 41% responded ‘no’. The vast majority of the remaining respondents indicated a strong desire for a blanket No-Detriment policy as the only viable solution for them. With the Students’ Union indicating a low likelihood of this, these three recommendations may be quite similar to the ACEC’s final decision. 

We showed UCD Students’ Union President Joanna Siewierska the data collected in the survey. “To receive this number of responses in a relatively short period of time just shows that a) the concern of students is very high, and b) they really want to see something happen”, Siewierska told the Tribune. “The results of the survey reflect the fact that this is not an isolated issue for a small community of students, it’s a student-wide problem that we need to address,” Siewierska said. “What’s interesting about this campaign is we’re not talking about individual students having problems, or pockets, we’re talking about literally every single student being affected.” Commenting on the statistics, the SU President said, “It’s really concerning to see that 87% of students said they experienced a large increase in academic pressure. […] Our cortisol levels are going up, we’re stressed, we’re anxious, all of us. That affects our ability to focus, and it certainly affects our ability to study. So, these survey results, although very concerning, are not surprising.”

Speaking about the university’s response, Siewierska said: “The response that we have received from management has been quite good. The establishment of a working group, working jointly to find an answer, it is the kind of thing you want to see happen in this situation.”

In November 2018, the Tribune conducted a student survey on tutorial quality in UCD. At the end of the survey, we asked the question: ‘Does UCD care about you?’ This produced some interesting results. 28.5% responded ‘Yes’, 26% responded ‘No’, 27.6% responded ‘Maybe’ and 17.9% responding ‘Unsure’. This almost equal split was a curious finding and suggests that there was no dominating attitude towards UCD’s care regarding their students. It still cannot be ignored that, according to this data, 1 in 4 students believe that UCD does not care about them. 

We asked this question again, and new data suggests a change in students’ feelings about the university. 2 in 5 students have said that UCD does not care about them, resulting in a large increase on the previous poll. Less than 15% of students believe that UCD cares about them. Amongst no-detriment policy campaigns, rent protests, an under resourced Health Centre and a growing student movement fighting against the reported “commercialisation” of UCD; it’s no wonder students feel forgotten by the university.

 

Conor Capplis – Editor

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