Durham University retracts controversial plan to provide online-only degrees

Durham University has retracted controversial plans to provide online-only degrees due to the coronavirus pandemic following a backlash from students and lecturers.

The university’s senate was due to vote on a resolution that would see Durham develop a range of online degrees to “complement its existing high quality residential educational programme”.

But it was withdrawn on Wednesday after many senate members expressed opposition to the proposals.

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The plans, which would also reduce the number of modules taught in person by a quarter in the next academic year, were condemned by the Department of English as “dangerous and damaging to the short- and long-term viability of the university”.

The department’s submission to the senate, seen by the Guardian, criticised suggestions from a private education firm consulted on the plans that lecturers would only need six hours training in order to teach online.

The document said Cambridge Education Digital’s estimation of the work required to shift learning online displayed no realistic sense of the realities the staffing and technological support required to develop and deliver it. “Training staff to teach effectively online will take far, far more than the six hours indicated,” it added.

The submission also warned the plans posed a potential conflict of interest because CEG Digital is owned by private equity group Bridgepoint Capital, whose chief investment officer is a member of Durham’s ‘chancellor’s circle’ of donors.

The plans will now be returned to the university’s council, where they will be redrawn before being returned to the senate.

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More than 1,000 current and prospective Durham students signed a petition opposing the plans, with a letter sent to heads of departments ahead of the senate meeting adding that “online teaching should not be considered an equitable substitute to in person degree”. Nearly 500 academics also signed a letter opposing the proposals.

Durham’s vice-chancellor Stuart Corbridge said: “The university continues to plan for a full residential teaching offer in October while also ensuring that teaching can go online if there is a lockdown later in the year.”

The University and College Union, which represents lecturers, described the proposals as “an attack on the livelihoods and the professional expertise of hard-working staff”.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The best way to ensure universities offer the best for students is to work with us and ensure any changes are led by staff, not imposed from above.”

A Durham University spokesman said: “We have engaged CEG Digital to help us understand the online education market and to support our excellent staff deliver their teaching online, if this is required by COVID-19 restrictions.

“We followed due process in awarding both of these contracts.”

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