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UvA Executive board talks university’s response to the pandemic

This past Tuesday the UvA Executive Board was confronted with the questions bothering students the most, from tuition fee reductions to the use of Proctorio during online examinations. On November 10th Geert ten Dam, Karen Maex, and Jan Linsten shared their answers with Room for Discussion, so here’s a glimpse of what was addressed.

What was done well? The first thing pointed out was UvA’s quick adaptation to the pandemic back in March, when the first wave forced educational institutions to close all over the Netherlands. The university managed to switch completely online in one week, adapting positions and transforming the curriculum, which they are very proud of. Since it was all improvised, the outcome wasn’t without fault, but this quick reaction was well appreciated by students.

However, the Executive Board is also dissatisfied with some results of the switch. Only 20% of education could be conducted on-campus, and even that turned out to be an obstacle that UvA wasn’t ready for: a lot of logistics are involved in this process, and factors such as transportation, classroom capacity, and teacher availability were hard to manage simultaneously. Nevertheless, Dr. Geert highlighted, they want to ensure that every student has at least one hour per week on-campus, and they are doing everything to achieve that goal.

Another frustrating moment UvA experienced in their response to the pandemic was the second wave, when they were already planning to increase on-campus capacity. Because of the new measures, this doesn’t seem feasible this calendar year. However, they are planning to extend opportunities for face-to-face education in the second semester of this academic year, if the curve flattens and the overall situation stabilizes.

One of the hot topics raised by students was the value of their diploma upon graduation: since the education is being held online, it is a big concern whether its worth will be decreased. The Executive Board agreed that this concern is legitimate, and they made efforts to avoid this outcome on two levels. First, they ensured there’s no study delay by instantly switching to an online format, and second, they have incorporated more personal and interactive elements in online classes to make them as close to physical as possible. They admit that quality of education has likely diminished somewhat due to a lack of personal communication, and one of the most important components missing now is the social integration of students — which in particular worsens the perceived quality of education.

A logical question arises from this: if the quality of education is relatively lower compared to pre-corona times, why are tuition fees staying the same? The Executive Board gave two answers to this frequently asked question. First, they stressed the fact that the current situation is an obvious force majeure, and the education they are providing at the moment is the best option available. Since the educational resources and a valid diploma are provided regardless of this, they are experiencing the same costs, so a reduction of the fee doesn’t seem viable. Secondly, even if they were capable and willing to do that, they simply wouldn’t be able to make a change because of the existing regulations on tuition fees for Dutch and EU/EEA students. However, they don’t go in depth on this aspect.

Another of the questions asked was accessibility for students: with a limited capacity of buildings fewer students have the opportunity to make use of study facilities. UvA is aware of this issue and they are planning to take advantage of small classrooms that can’t be used for tutorials, that will serve as study spaces for small groups.

One of the biggest questions students had surrounded the use of Proctorio and the privacy issues behind it. The Executive Board addressed this concern by reassuring students that Proctorio is used only as a last resort in light of the pandemic to avoid a study delay. Furthermore, they limit the breach of privacy as much as possible: apparently, only members of the examination board have access to information collected by Proctorio, and all media files are deleted within 30 days of the exam. If students still feel uncomfortable using Proctorio, they can take a physical exam on-campus.

Why not switch to open book exams or any of the other alternatives such as a shorter exam time? They argue that managing thousands of students at the same time is practically impossible, and regardless it is up to the examination board to decide whether Proctorio use is legitimate in particular cases. Sometimes the reason for that is the study material of the course and format of the exam: even though both the Law and the EBE faculties are considered to be big, the former doesn’t use Proctorio because of the structure of their studies and the materials required for exams. The use of Proctorio is not a “yes or no question”, it is rather a “question of proportionality”: the exam board assesses whether the intrusion of privacy is proportional to the goal of UvA — making exams fair. Since UvA wants to keep their position in the rankings, it is important to keep the values of their diplomas high, and strict exam regulations are something that can ensure the validity of diplomas upon graduation.

In parting, the Executive Board left a message for students: “Support each other. Go outside. Make use of the opportunities of study workplaces for group assignments. Try to interact with other fellow students (while following the safety rules). And always stay critical.” They are encouraging students to share their opinions about online education and what can be improved — so don’t hesitate to contact them.

If you want to know more about the University’s response to the pandemic, you can watch the original interview here. If you would like to read more reviews of Room for Discussion interviews done by Rostra, check out our Room for Discussion section.


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