The “new normal” is a phrase that has been bandied about in higher education circles throughout the summer. NUI Galway (NUIG) students were this week exposed to what this new normal will look like in a more practical sense, and the continued uncertainty that it may bring.
At around 9.30pm last Monday, NUIG published spreadsheets on its website showing the percentage of hours students would spend on campus compared to online for every course.
A Twitter storm immediately erupted, with students complaining about the lack of hours they would have on campus, after NUIG had instructed them to secure accommodation for the coming year.
NUIG Confessions, a Twitter page where students can post anonymously, was at the centre of the storm.
One post read: “Sorry what have I paid €5k on accommodation for to only be in the college 2 hours a week.” Another: “I don’t think nuig could have done any more to lose the respect of all 20000 students this year.”
Frustration with the university was palpable. Joshua Perraton, a third-year history student in NUIG, had put €1,500 down for accommodation a week before, only to find that he would be on campus for an hour a week.
Perraton said that he thought the university’s handling of the timetabling was “unprofessional”.
“I think that it shows a certain lack of regard for students welfare – financial and otherwise”, Perraton said. “I think it shows that they are very out of touch with their student body, and they don’t really understand the financial ins and outs for a lot of people.”
However, the timetables at present are still only provisional. NUIG described the spreadsheets as “indicative schedules”, which have “as much detail as can be provided at this stage while timetables for all courses are being finalised by the Schools and Colleges in the University”.
The university said in a email to The University Times that it appreciates “the delay is an added challenge for students but timetables must be planned carefully to ensure that we make best use of our facilities and that capacity and access for teaching spaces is in line with public health guidelines”.
“The health and safety of our students and wider community remains our main priority”, the university added.
From here on out, the number of hours students will have on campus may increase as the first semester approaches. Pádraic Toomey, NUI Galway Students’ Union (NUIGSU) president, said that he is therefore “telling students to wait a little bit and continue to check that page as it updates”.
Toomey said that he was “so glad” the spreadsheets had been released, but that they were not enough without proper timetables.
“We need actual timetables. We need to know what day people are going to be in. It’s like being told that you have a dental appointment next week, but not telling them when or what date. It just doesn’t really work”, he said.
Even with the spreadsheet released, students cannot make a fully informed decision on whether or not to pay for accommodation as these hours could fluctuate.
However, many – like Perraton – have taken the leap and paid for accommodation. NUIG told this newspaper that both of its campus residences are fully booked for the forthcoming year and have “considerable” waiting lists. Accommodation will, therefore, not be available for short stays.
NUIG said that it appreciates “the delay is an added challenge for students but timetables must be planned carefully to ensure that we make best use of our facilities and that capacity and access for teaching spaces is in line with public health guidelines”.
“We all wanted timetables because everyone was wanting to know when would we have classes”, Margarett Muldoon, a final-year Corporate Law student, said. “I think that’s where everyone is stuck now, because we don’t know if it’s three hours in one day. Or is it 30 minutes each day? We don’t know and it’s next to impossible to know if it’s worthwhile going down, and can I get a part-time job. All this other stuff. Everyone is really lost.”
Alana Donovan is heading into second year, studies Psychology, English, Philosophy and Creative Writing, so the spreadsheet system has been particularly difficult to interpret.
“The spreadsheet is confusing especially for me because I have four different subjects”, Donovan said, “but basically they’re saying that 33 per cent of our learning materials will be in person and the rest will be online. That’s kind of all I got from it to be honest because it’s quite hard to understand”.
University College Dublin is set to bring its timetables out tomorrow, while Trinity’s will be published on September 14th at the latest. Both universities will undoubtedly look on nervously at the frustration among NUIG students and the harsh reality of operating college in the time of the coronavirus – one that the spreadsheet saga has unveiled.