By Aidan Lomas – Editor-in-Chief
On Monday the 21st of December, it was through BBC News – despite what the University would say- that most students at Queen’s University Belfast learned of the planned return to online teaching in January 2022. Despite initial claims that no such return would take place, the harsh, morally-questionable, and sudden U-turn from the University’s management is stated to be a “precautionary measure”; a precautionary measure it would appear the Northern Ireland Executive do not agree with. Following a series of undeniably stressful and turbulent semesters on university campuses in the UK and Ireland, there’s clearly an understanding at Queen’s University that students’ wellbeing matters less than previously imagined. With the news that – nearly two years after the first lockdown began back in March 2020 – the University will once again be predominantly online, many students have been left feeling frustrated, exhausted, and ignored.
Since the announcement of the return to online lectures was shared the same day Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Ian Greer received his honorary degree from Amity University Uttar Pradesh, it’s unsurprising that QUBLove featured fewer posts about the first floor of the McClay library and more about the outraged feelings of students. One person wrote:
“Makes absolute no sense that exams can go ahead in person immediately after the “high risk” Christmas period, yet after this we have to go back to online teaching? Again the lack of consistency is clear”Post from QUBLove
Furthermore, some students went on to suggest that perhaps the University’s motives were less health-focused and more profiteering:
“QUB made a profit surplus of [£] 25 million between 2020-2021 and made under [£] 5 million in the previous year. It’s clear to see that there is a significant financial decision made to close face to face teaching, and not one about our safety”Post from QUBLove
The Powerful Student Response
In response to the University’s colossal miscalculation, the admins of QUBLove made a statement condemning QUB’s actions, calling for a cancellation to remote learning in January. A petition was also shared in this statement, which was addressed directly to the governors of QUB. The number of signatures on the petition alone suggests there’s no need for a referendum this time as students will clearly no longer tolerate QUB’s incredulous disregard for their wellbeing and education.
In addition to this, whilst operating independently of the Students’ Union, Environmental Officer Aidan Moran has established a forum for students to discuss and prepare a campaign against the University’s decision. The group, which at the time of writing was populated by 506 members, was created on Wednesday the 22nd of December. Similarly to Mr Moran, numerous Students’ Union Officers and Reps’ have taken up leading roles in the group whilst also acting independently of the Students’ Union itself. We spoke to Mr Moran, who said:
“There is a lot of justified anger towards the University over the recent decision and the incredibly disrespectful way students and staff were informed of it. However, without a strategy and a structure to put that strategy into place, that anger would just turn into comments on QUBLove and social media rather than changing anything at the University.
What this group is intended to do is create a space for the student body to learn how we can fight the University to create a university that works for us. They’ve shown they only care about profit and image, so that is what we need to go after. But we need to educate, we need to agitate, and we need to organise”Aidan Moran, creator of the Autonomous Student Group
Links to both the Online Petition and the Autonomous Student Group can be found at the end of the article.
The Students’ Union
Following Monday’s announcement, the Students’ Union released the following statement:
The Students’ Union have done a remarkable job so far; not only have they taken a leading role, but the SU have also toiled tirelessly right from the word “Go”. They’ve already fulfilled their commitment to work harder than ever by having achieved rent breaks for students in Queen’s accommodation. In an update released the day after the announcement, the SU stated that all eligible students will have received an email before 5 PM on Wednesday the 22nd of December with details on how to request a rent pause for January. Moreover, the Students’ Union have lobbied the University’s management for a number of support measures:
- The reinstatement of 48 Hour automatic extensions
- The reinstatement of 14 days self-certification period for Exceptional Circumstances
- The option to defer assessments with no penalty & Fee-Free resits
- Funding to tackle digital poverty
- Support for International Students to return to campus
- Fund for wellbeing and support services
Additionally, the Students’ Union have already lobbied and will continue to lobby the Northern Ireland Executive to write-off debt and give students a tuition fee refund.
Judging by the rapid pace taken by the SU and students combined, as well as the irrefutable outrage felt by many, it’s clear one of two things will happen in the coming weeks; either Queen’s University will make yet another U-turn – in this case, a more favourable one –, or a public display of disillusionment from students will once again feature QUB in the national press. One key ingredient in the outrage this decision has caused is that it came with no warning, and after the first semester of this academic year had come to a close; right when we were all ready to take a well-earned break and look forward to the new year, Queen’s University sprung this news upon us. Having faced the true weight of COVID-19, I am able to appreciate and respect the views of the present minority who support the return to online teaching. However, I sincerely believe that the last thing on management’s mind was the pandemic. Whatever happens, it’s clear that students’ confidence in their University may have been damaged beyond repair.
The Gown did contact the University for a response but was unable to receive one at the time of publication. We will continue to reach out to the University for comment, and will report their response when we receive it.
The Autonomous Student Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/454587849580562/?__cft__=AZVUfMMsRrj7UsJ8hcjxgWGF4qZFnqQ3YZtbr_wJeYjtzl3U3y7SHAIeS6WtZc0BJ51tnXKr6RIWrnhMnktzU6GM7lxhCs8Ocdmv9Eg-NGEXhAdG9abYfLeqOftv7ToKUadjv7sa4tQPZxyNKyPzZYbM2S2qS96vuhBNGd7iYnguhlG4SjnhWhPZQkoNzM2Maic&__tn__=-UK-R
Online Petition to cancel the return to remote learning in January 2022: https://chng.it/bgzWkntZbT
Queen’s University’s FAQ page regarding the return to remote learning in January: https://www.qub.ac.uk/home/coronavirus-faqs/information-for-students/#d.en.1260116
Department for Health COVID-19 Restrictions guide: https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/publications/guidance-accompany-health-protection-coronavirus-restrictions-regulations-northern-ireland-2021