Reopening universities

29 May 2020

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

WILL universities be able to allow all students to be physically present on campuses for the coming semester? Will they go online? Or will they offer a hybrid mode of instruction, in which some students and classes are online and others are on campus? There is a lot of debate around this issue all over the world. Opening universities when a vaccine for Covid-19 is still not available is a difficult decision and one that cannot be taken lightly. Universities will offer classes — that much is clear — in one format or another; which particular format is employed is where the debate lies.

Some universities have already decided and announced their mitigation plans. The University of Cambridge has announced that all lectures are going to be held online, but that small classes and discussions can take place in person. Since Cambridge uses the tutorial method for most of its teaching, ie using small groups, and the university does not require attendance at lectures, this might not mean a big change in teaching. We still do not know the policies on hostels and housing, and if international students are going to work from home or be in Cambridge. The California State University system, with its 23 campuses, is also going to be largely online.

A lot of small colleges and universities in the US have announced that they are going to have an in-person fall semester. It is not just about education in this case; many small colleges fear enrolment declines if they go online and they do not have the financial resources to take tuition and other income cuts. If they do not open for in-person classes, they might be in a lot of financial trouble. But many of them are talking of enacting lots of standard operating procedures as they reopen for an in-person semester in the fall. These rules and procedures will apply not only to classes but to dorms and other on-campus activities as well. In addition, these colleges are promising good healthcare provision, which will allow for adequate testing, contact tracing, and follow up and isolation possibilities as well.

A lot of large universities are still in the process of deciding. What is clear, though, is that even the ones who are deciding in favour of in-person semesters will be offering online alternatives for their students, at least for the coming semester, if not longer. Purdue University, one of the bigger ones to have opted for an in-person fall semester, have said that they will be offering the larger enrolment courses online and that all students will have online options.

There is a lot of debate about how universities should reopen under the pandemic.

Universities in Pakistan are having a similar debate. Of course, our circumstances are different from the US and UK. Many universities are still struggling to finish the last spring semester and only starting to go online now. Internet access issues are much greater here than in some developed countries. There has been a pretty strong reaction by students against internet-based classes over the last few months. These factors make in-person opening of universities more desirable.

But – and here is the rub – our universities have limited access to decent medical facilities; will not be able to manage large-scale frequent testing; their ability to enforce SOPs is going to be limited as well (this is a society-wide issue as we have seen clearly over the last couple of weeks); and enforcing SOPs outside of classes is going to be even more difficult. Taking care of sick students in case of an outbreak at a university that is not detected early enough is going to be very hard for almost any institute of higher learning in the country. Should universities even try to do in-person opening for the next semester?

There might be subject-based differences too that need to be kept in mind. Some disciplines need laboratory work and cannot have their courses be exclusively online. For these, access to laboratories has to be made possible for students. Medical colleges need students to come to laboratories, hospitals and, in later stages, even deal with real patients. Here, too, exclusively online instruction is not an option. But for a lot of other subjects, it can work. I teach in the fields of economics and education. My online teaching experience, though only a couple of months so far, did not give me any evidence to suggest online teaching cannot work for another semester or two, even for people who might prefer in-person classes.

Young people are thought to be less at risk from the virus than older ones. People with co-morbidities become even more high-risk. The faculty/staff are not as young as the students. And many older people have other health issues as well. If having an in-person semester raises the risk of spreading or getting the virus, would it be fair for universities to ask faculty/staff members to do in-person teaching/administration in the autumn? How high will the risk of infection need to be for a faculty member to decline to teach in-person and still not be in breach of his/her teaching obligations? Talking to colleagues, I am getting a very mixed response. Some faculty members are not too worried; others are very worried. Here too, some individual-level flexibility might be needed so that faculty/staff can choose their mode of interaction.

Which way will universities in Pakistan go? The decision might take some time. But it does seem that some level of physical teaching will have to happen given our infrastructural issues. It also seems that a hybrid model will also have to be introduced, as universities cannot handle all of their students if any SOPs are developed and effectively implemented. The exact nature of the hybrid model will vary with university, subject, year of instruction, nature of degree and so on. In addition, adequate protections for faculty and staff will have to be devised as well.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2020