Not enough lecture halls

Online classes even though the lockdown is over? 'Painful’, ‘embarrassing’, ‘unacceptable’

Illustration: DUB

"It's most likely going to be evening or online classes, which is outright embarrassing”, tweeted Rense Corten, Associate Professor in Sociology, to express his displeasure after learning last week that a temporary educational building at Padualaan Avenue will not be ready in time for the seminars of Block 1. Part of the classes will have to be offered in the evening hours, on Saturdays, or online. The choice lies with the programmes and the course coordinators themselves.

“One of the basic functions of a university is to provide rooms where teachers can give classes to students and right now UU is failing at that”, Corten explains to DUB. “What frustrates me the most is that, for these courses, we already have very very few contact hours: two hours of lectures and two hours of workgroups. But even that we can't offer them in a normal way. I really can't explain that to my students.”

Corten is definitely not the only teacher who is unsatisfied with the situation. Peter Bijl, who teaches Geosciences and Biology and also serves as the chair of the Utrecht Young Academy, deems the room shortage “unacceptable”.

In his view, an instrument that was meant for a period of crisis is now being employed to solve structural problems regarding classroom availability. “I'm fearing a sliding scale, where less serious reasons are going to be used to move classes online.”

Right now, it looks like that he will have to provide his course, Marine Sciences 2, online in September. But he is not sure he would like to offer classes like this, so he is considering going on a strike.

“I don't think it's right that there are no lecture halls available for the students who were accepted by the university. Then you are not delivering quality. With my refusal to work, I aim to encourage students to also come into action. They should demand to get their worth for their money.”

He still hopes for a way out. He is hoping there will be fewer students than anticipated and the university will still be able to find rooms for all classes. “Otherwise, I will go outside and give lectures in the open air. However, if I have to do that, it is really crossing the line."

Students of the three faculties have yet to receive their schedules, so they don't know yet whether they will have classes online, during the evening, or on the weekend. However, the student members of the University Council ready posed questions about this matter to the Executive Board in this week's meeting.

Council member Rémi ter Haar pointed out that the council has repeatedly stressed that online education was only justified because of the circumstances. She inquired whether UU is safeguarding the quality of its education and if teachers are getting enough support. 

She also wondered if the university is planning on offering any kind of concession to the students who are not going to be able to attend classes in the evenings or weekends because they work, for example. She proposed less strict attendance requirements to deal with that issue.

Rector Henk Kummeling emphasised that only a small percentage of the classes are going to take place online. He also assured the students that no UU student will follow classes exclusively online during block 1. “They will all be present on campus”.

According to the rector, each course will assess whether, to what extent, and how students can be supported. He is not worried about the quality of education. “We have gained enough experience by now and teachers can still turn to the experts of EducateIt.”

As much on location as possible
In the meantime, education directors and course coordinators must make decisions on how to proceed with the situation, which is not easy, according to the Educational Director of Methods and Statistics, Peter Lugtig. “There still are daily shifts.”

The projects Lugtig is involved with include seminar groups for first-year Bachelor's students for which no rooms are available, at least for now. “Especially for first-year students, we find it important that they attend classes on campus. We prioritise those courses. Unfortunately, that means that other seminars that are now scheduled to happen on campus will have to be moved elsewhere.”

The educational director speaks of a “painful situation” and has agreed with the course coordinators that courses have to take place on campus as much as possible, if necessary in the evening until 9:00 pm. However, classes on Saturday are no option for him. “I can't ask that from teachers and students. The work-life balance would be in danger.”

Paying the babysitter
Jeroen Janssen, the educational director of Education Sciences, is looking to prevent online lectures as much as possible. “I would be so wry if we had to do that, while the institutions are not closing like last winter. Students have also shown us that the pandemic and online education had a major impact on them. So, I fear that an extra period online would take a toll on their mental health". 

Janssen therefore thinks that students and teachers will have to take late-night classes into account, although he also acknowledges the disadvantages of that. “The workload for colleagues will be significant for the colleagues who teach in the evening. We are investigating whether there are ways to compensate them. We could pay for their babysitter, for example. It's a shame for the students as well. It will be hard for them to concentrate in class at the end of a long day".

In the University Council meeting, held on Monday, staff member Katell Laveant observed that teachers with young families or frail health are now being bombarded with timetables in which they suddenly have to give lectures in the evenings. The attention that was often paid to vulnerable teachers in the pandemic now seems to have suddenly disappeared.

According to rector Kummeling, in such cases, a manager should come up with a satisfactory solution. "It is unacceptable that an individual teacher has to fight with the timetables himself."

No standard
Faculty boards will also be confronted with questions about the lack of space for their courses in the coming weeks, several faculty board members report.

They know that faculties depend on the university's Real Estate & Campus Directorate for the availability of buildings, but they would like to know what the consequences are for education, also in the long term.

Student council member Ismaïl Sarti, from the Faculty of Science, mails: "We understand that there are lectures that have to be online, but that is so undesirable. It should not become a standard."

At Social Sciences, the faculty board already prepared the council members this spring for the possibility that accommodation would not be found for some courses could by the beginning of the upcoming academic year. At the time, the council expressed its concerns and insisted on timely communication with course coordinators, lecturers and students.

"Lecturers and students are still suffering from the shortage of rooms," says Ellen Reitz, chairperson of the staff section. "That does not benefit the quality of education or their wellbeing, perhaps even for the long term. It is the university's responsibility to provide the right facilities for staff and students and it has failed to do so."

Last week, UU announced that a temporary building on Padualaan, which was supposed to serve for educational purposes, would not be ready in time. The building would have a total of fourteen lecture halls. 

Classes and workgroups for several hundred students of the faculties of Science, Social Sciences and Geosciences were left with no space to happen within UU's usual timeslots. These courses now have the choice to offer their activities in the evening, between 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm, or on Saturdays. The latter is practically no one's first pick.

The room shortage was caused by several factors, of which a significant one is an expressive growth in the number of enrolled students over the past two years. This required UU to find ten percent more teaching spaces. Some of the solutions found include renting rooms on Daltonlaan Avenue and making new halls available on the UCU campus. The timeslot between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm is also being much more used now. 

However, they still couldn't find a solution for a part of the educational activities set to take place during Block 1. The problem is not exclusive to Utrecht University: other Dutch universities are also having a hard time finding buildings for all their classes. UU hopes to solve the issue by the end of Block 1.