Q&A: Do you have a question for the rector about the course of the academic year?

(14-02-2021) After a somewhat unreal first semester, a solid exam month and a well-deserved week off, we are now entering the second semester.

Unfortunately, we had to start the second semester again within the margins of what is safe: occasionally on campus, for the most part from a distance.

We understand the decision to keep those annoying corona measures in place for large institutions such as universities and colleges. Especially because this decision is based on very solid advice from scientific experts from different Flemish universities and university hospitals. But that does not alter the fact that the whole corona situation is a heavy burden. Our rector said it before: COVID-19 sucks.

We understand that you have a lot of questions about all the measures that are currently in place at Ghent University. That is why we made an appeal to ask your questions to the rector via Instagram Stories. We received many responses and have compiled a list of the most recurring questions.

Below you can read the rector’s answers.

Will there be a coronacheck again? (Jules)

The “coronacheck” will not be applied in the same way in the 2020–21 academic year as it was for the second semester exams and the exam resits during the 2019–20 academic year. The coronacheck refers to the set of initiatives and tools developed in the 2019–20 academic year, both for analysing exam results and for adjusting them.

In 2020-2021, a process was started to build on the most important elements of the original coronacheck tool in a sustainable way. This tool is intended above all as a reflection tool for both lecturers and also examination boards and study programme committees. The new tool means that lecturers will be able to reflect on the exam results for their subjects after the grades have been announced, and compare them with grades from previous years. On the basis of this reflection, lecturers will be able to evaluate the overall approach of the course unit and see how different ways of working and testing were used with a view to the future. Examination boards and study programme committees will receive a global overview of exam scores, percentage of. Developing such a sustainable tool takes time, both in terms of content as well as technical aspects. The new tool is part of the broader test policy, the general education policy and the policy on study progress and study efficiency. It will also be integrated into the UGI Education Policy. This tool will thus be used after Corona, but is also available for use this academic year to investigate any possible negative impact of the Corona situation.

For the first semester exams of the 2020–2021 academic year, as always, lecturers will record the final exam scores autonomously. In mid-February 2021, a first version of the tool will be available to enable both teaching staff and study programme committees to compare the final results of the first semester exams with those of previous years. Through this tool, lecturers and training committees will be able to detect whether (more) students are missing any competencies. Based on this analysis it will then be possible to offer remedial measures in the second semester of the 2020–2021 academic year. In this way, students will have the chance to fill in any gaps in their skills over the course of the second semester or in additional sessions (e.g. via the Student Counselling Service, via a learning pathway, through a catch-up lesson, ...). We will consult with the students and lecturers in the study programme committee to consider how best to set up these remedial measures without unreasonably increasing the workload for either party.

The full tool will be available by June 2021. For the examination boards, this means that it will be possible to compare the exam results from both first and second semesters with results achieved in previous years. This analysis may give rise to deliberation at the level of the examination boards. The examination board can develop a well-thought-out deliberation policy within the existing guidelines. Deliberation may happen both on an individual level and for the whole cohort. The director of studies will monitor to ensure that any deliberation policy is applied uniformly within the faculty.

Since the development of this new tool aims to build on the most important elements of the original “coronacheck” tool in a sustainable way, both during and after the current context of Corona, it will be better to use a different name for the tool in the future. A provisional name for the tool is “the evaluation reflection tool”. This will be included in the UGI Education Policy as part of the “Evaluation and Review” topic.

In the context of privacy regulations, the aggregated data which is disclosed through the tool will be made available only to the responsible lecturers and co-lecturers, the chairs and secretaries of the study programme committees and the examination boards. The data can only be used for the purposes as described above.

Why was there a coronacheck for the exams of June and August 2020 and none right now? (Camille)

At the start of the corona pandemic in March 2020, all teachers suddenly had to switch to online and distance learning. Initially, this had to be done without any kind of preparation or guidance. But afterwards guidance was quickly offered to the teachers. Distance learning tools were also made available.

Of course, the students were also suddenly confronted with enormous changes. It was not always easy to achieve sufficient interaction between lecturers and students. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that teachers and students did their utmost to make this happen in the best possible way. This is hereby explicitly stated and even emphasised.

In the current academic year, teachers and students were prepared for online, blended and distance learning. Lots of training sessions, webinars and educational tips were developed to support the teachers. Various tools were purchased and integrated into the learning environment. A virtual classroom was purchased, recording and streaming facilities were expanded, proctoring software was purchased, a rotation system was developed, safe practicals were elaborated, new forms of teaching were accelerated, etc.

For the students, the current academic year focuses strongly on a fixed educational structure and interaction. The schedule is followed as much as possible, and almost all lessons are streamed and recorded. This is partly at the explicit request of the student representatives. For each course and model track it was considered which crucial practicals could be organised according to strict safety measures, so that the possibility of taking evaluations/exams for subjects or parts of subjects in January was maximised.

The results of the first semester exams show that this is a good approach. A significantly higher number of students passed all first semester exams (47.8%) compared to the same period last year (44.7%). The effect is even stronger for first-year students: they also scored better than last year (24.5% passed all courses of the first semester this year compared to 20.1% last year).

Another striking and reassuring finding: for all courses and programmes combined, there were more attendees at the exams than in previous years.

Why did some faculties get an extra week off and others not? (Lore)

The second semesters began on 8 February for all courses. However, the details may vary from course to course and can be determined autonomously by the faculty. For example, programmes can organise a week of introductory courses, cluster practicals and work placements, etc.

Will there be a normal proclamation in September? (Laura)

Which events will be able to take place in September and which requirements they will have to meet, does not depend so much on us as on the measures imposed by the various authorities in our country. Together with you, we hope to be able to organise a fully-fledged proclamation to conclude the academic year!

Is there a chance that we will have "normal" classes again this academic year? (Ayla)

At the end of February, all higher education institutions, together with the Minister of Education, scientific experts and the Flemish Union of Students (VVS), will reassess the epidemiological situation. A decision will then be taken on how the educational activities can be organised after the first six weeks of classes in the second semester. Which restrictions will apply cannot be predicted at this moment. This will depend, among other things, on the general corona indicators (in particular, the number of hospital admissions and the occupancy of the intensive care units in our hospitals) and on the course of the vaccination campaign (in particular, the speed with which it will be possible to vaccinate people belonging to risk groups).

Do you think there will be any on-campus classes this year? (Marthe)

I am even sure of that. Because even in code red, there will still be classes on campus, albeit only for what we call the 'essential practicals' (these are practicals, labs, work classes or exercises in which necessary competences must be acquired that cannot be acquired via online alternatives) or for specific educational activities for first-year students. All of this, of course, in compliance with all of the required safety measures (limited auditorium occupancy, compulsory use of masks, etc.).

If we could actually switch to a less strict regime after six weeks of classes, there will obviously be more opportunities to follow educational activities on campus.

Why is on-campus teaching in a 1 to 5 or 1 to 2 capacity not possible from February onwards? (Charline)

Currently, we do not organise lectures on campus, but practicals, labs, working lectures, exercises, etc. that are necessary to acquire the competences of a course unit (in short, 'essential practicals'), can indeed take place on campus. This is also the case for specific educational activities for first-year students. For these essential practicals, an occupancy rate of 1 to 5 is allowed in rooms with fixed furniture (such as auditoriums or lecture halls), in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the government. In practical classrooms, an occupancy rate of 1 to 2 is possible, provided that a distance of 1.5 metres is observed between all persons present.

Is the decision to stay in code red until 21 March final or can this still change? (Kets)

At Ghent University, we will indeed maintain code red until 21 March. Based on the evaluation we will make at the end of February with all higher edication institutions and together with the Minister of Education, the scientific experts and the Flemish Union of Students (VVS), we will decide whether we can switch to a less strict regime after 21 March.

The main reasons why we opted for an approach with the possibility to switch after six weeks of classes instead of four week are essentially these: (i) we want to offer some stability and avoid fatigue as much as possible; (ii) we want to allow for a week and a half between the moment the decision is made to switch and the moment when the new safety level comes into force - in the scenario where code red is only maintained for four weeks, this would mean that the decision to switch would have to be made after only two and a half weeks, which is very early on; (iii) if it becomes apparent in the fifth or sixth week of lessons that switching to code orange is feasible and appropriate, we will be able to work according to code orange from week seven. Institutions that work with blocks of four weeks, will only be able to work according to code orange after the Easter holiday break.

Shopping is allowed by the government, so why is higher education a problem then? (Desiree)

That is a question you should actually ask the government. I do notice that, compared to many other sectors, higher education institutions are still given a relatively large amount of freedom: of course, the conditions are far from ideal, but the university is still up and running. If you think of the cultural and hospitality sector for example, many people who work in those industries or depend on them for their income have it a lot worse than we do. Comparing one sorrow with another is always delicate and does not help, I know. But we can hardly deny that the university is doing well, all things considered, while in many other sectors they do not even have the chance to do well.

Can we still get credits back at the end of the year because of corona? (Marie)

The Flemish Parliament is working on a regulation that will allow to get back your credits at the end of this academic year because of corona, as was the case at the end of the previous academic year.

What is considered an essential practical? (Elie)

We consider practicals, labs, workshops, exercises, ... that are necessary to realise the competencies of a course unit, essential. We refer to them all as 'essential practicals'. These essential practicals can take place on campus, subject to the safety measures in place at the time.

Can we please have practicals back in non-medical disciplines? (Cato)

That is already possible now. Essential practicals can be organised for all programmes on campus, and therefore not only for medical programmes.

Will thesis defenses all have to be online?

Master thesis defenses can be organised both online and on campus. If the defense is organised on campus, this must of course be done in a safe way and thus in compliance with the measures applicable at the time.

Your faculty takes the decision: it decides autonomously how the thesis defenses will be organised at your faculty.

Do we get back part of the tuition fee? (Quinten)

No, the tuition fee remains.

This academic year, education is organised as a combination of online education, distance learning and on campus education. It is clear that we have to provide our education differently - but we are not providing less education. All evaluations and exams will also take place as planned.

For the sake of completeness: this organisation of our educational activities, which is much more complex than in non-corona times, does not cost the university less, but (much) more money than usual. Just think of the purchase of extra hardware and software for online education, the rent of extra locations (e.g. Flanders Expo for the exams), ...

What about the exams in June when Flanders Expo becomes a vaccination centre? (Gianni)

The exams in June will be organised as in January. For the on-campus exams we will again be using the auditoriums and rooms on our own Ghent University campuses and at Flanders Expo.

The vaccination centre of the City of Ghent will only be built up in Hall 2, leaving sufficient halls available for the organisation of the exams. The central hall, through which students can enter the examination halls safely, will also remain available to us.

Can we restart rehearsals of the university ensembles in code red? (Thijs)

Unfortunately not. Rehearsals for amateur musicians are not allowed by the government at the moment. As soon as this rule for amateur musicians is lifted, the student ensembles can of course rehearse again.

When will I be able to go for a beer again? When will the Overpoort reopen? (Hannes)

The Overpoort will open as soon as the government measures for the hospitality industry are relaxed. Hopefully, the corona indicators will allow it to do so soon!

Are student associations allowed to organise museum visits, quizzes,... in a corona proof way? (Louise)

Unfortunately, the government does not allow this at the moment. Museum visits are only possible individually, together with housemates or with the designated “hug buddy”. Online activities can of course be organised with your student association - and it's a good thing a lot of them are!

Will the libraries remain open during the second semester? Will the study places be open during the period when code red is still in force? (Amber)

Students who need it, can use on campus study areas during the entire second semester. These are freely accessible until the Easter holidays. In the libraries there are also often study areas available.

Can first-year students make use of the Study-OOs again from the second semester onwards?

Yes, the Study-OOs will also be available again in the second semester. From Monday 8 February to Friday 2 April Study-OO's will be available at two locations (Urbis at Wilsonplein and Rommelaere at Bijloke). StudyCoaches can also make use of designated rooms in the faculties.

Why is your coronaproof approach at the student housing facilities more anti-pleasure than anti-corona? (Laurine)

At the housing facilities too, we have to comply with the safety measures imposed by the government. The measures in the housing facilities currently include that visitors are only allowed in the rooms and that a mouth mask must be worn in all common areas. There are also rules regarding the maximum occupancy of the kitchens. All this is necessary to prevent infections and quarantines resulting from high-risk contacts. I realise, of course, that these measures are not pleasant for the residents and hope, together with you, that it will be possible to relax the measures in this area too.

What are the measures for the declining mental well-being of students? (Weronika)

There are already many initiatives and new ones are added regularly. You can find a handy overview on the Student Portal.

We have called upon the Flemish government to urgently make more resources available to higher education institutions to support students and staff in the field of mental well-being and mental healthcare. I will also put this appeal on the VLIR agenda (VLIR = Flemish Interuniversity Council).

The accessibility of the psychological and mental care and support offered at and by Ghent University will also be optimised and strengthened.

How will you ensure an exchange atmosphere for international students in these times? (Iris)

We are very much aware that these are difficult times for international students to study and live abroad. There are significantly less international students so contacts among each other are limited. Although international students are one of our priority groups, on campus activities are restricted and hence there is also less interaction with local students. Because of this, colleagues of the faculties and the central administration as well as dedicated student organizations have organized online activities to create an alternative exchange atmosphere. We do hope, of course, that the overall situation will soon improve, so that we can gradually switch to on campus student activities again, allowing for the typical exchange atmosphere international students are looking for.

Why does Ghent University always impose stricter corona rules than any other higher education institution? (Anton)

I think this is a misunderstanding, since Ghent University, just like the four other Flemish universities, remains within the framework of the pandemic matrix. This matrix indicates what is and what is not allowed in the different pandemic phases (the 'colour codes'). The matrix was drawn up in the summer of last year by the Minister of Education and the five Flemish universities together, in close consultation with scientific experts from all universities.

The decision to start the second semester in code red is therefore a decision taken by the Minister together with the entire field of higher education and followed by all universities and colleges. Just as later this month, together with the Minister and all higher educations institutions, we will evaluate whether the code red should be maintained or whether we can switch back to a less strict level.

So we are all adhering to the same framework, even though there may be some differences in practical implementation from university to university, and even from campus to campus. The latter, however, has nothing to do with being more or less strict, but rather with variables such as the number of students on a particular campus (many or few students) or the nature of the programmes (e.g. many or few practical courses), or with matters that are in themselves unrelated to the university, such as the degree of contamination in the city or region where the university is located and any specific measures taken in response by higher authorities. What may have contributed to the perception of a 'strict' Ghent University are the experiences of the first semester, when we tried to take decisions sufficiently in advance and communicated about those measures openly and widely. This was the case at the start of the academic year, when, based on the unanimous advice of our experts, we decided to start in code orange and not in code yellow and were the first to communicate this; many other universities and university colleges initially counted on not having to take this step, but soon found themselves forced by circumstances to adjust and take the same decision. The same happened in mid-October, when we announced that we would be switching to code red at the end of the month: initially, we were on our own, but when the Consultative Committee decided on 30 October to announce 'code (dark) red' with immediate effect, the other universities and colleges of higher education had no choice but to switch over literally overnight. At the time, our approach may have seemed stricter than that of others, but in fact the difference lay only in the timing of the decision - and in the time we gave to our teachers and staff to prepare for the switch. The reality following our decisions has always shown that we made the right ones. This is not a feather in my cap, but rather in the cap of the experts and scientists who gave the right advice - my merit (and by extension that of the entire university administration) is simply that the voice of science was consistently followed, even when that voice brought messages or advice that we did not like.

In other words, we are always trying to decide what we should decide in light of this unprecedented pandemic. We also try to make those decisions in time, so that we can inform everyone correctly and our teachers and staff can implement all this as well as possible. I think we really owe it to the Ghent University staff and students in these difficult times.

On a personal level, what is the most challenging aspect of your job during the pandemic? (Bernat)

A decision may be as 'right' as it can be, but that does not mean that you 'like' taking it or that you look back on it 'with pleasure'. Unfortunately, during this pandemic, a lot of decisions have to be made reluctantly. This is a very difficult period, both for our students and for our staff. I am pleasantly surprised and particularly proud of the many efforts that students and staff make to keep the university running, to keep making study progress, to assist each other where necessary. But I can't say that this makes me happy or suddenly cry 'hurrah!': all that effort and energy would have been better spent on other things.

One of the most challenging aspects of this is this: keep seeing what is good and what is going well; avoid only remembering what is 'not ideal' or annoying; keep seeing what is possible; read, tell or do something that has nothing to do with the corona crisis.

How would you feel if you were a student without any prospects? (Anouk)

One word: cr*p. For students, this is simply a bad time. And there is really no need to comment on that. I honestly don't understand how some people keep finding it necessary to contrast the suffering, the loss, the sadness, the discomfort, the anger, the frustration, ... of one against that of another. COVID-19 sucks. End of story. Having said that, I do look with great admiration at the many initiatives that are set up for, by and with students. Often small initiatives, but they can provide an additional perspective and mean a world of difference - whether it is for yourself, or for your fellow students or people around you. Many students have transformed into a sports partner, a walking buddy, a care buddy, a volunteer, ... If I were a student now, I would hopefully get carried away with something like that. But honestly? When I observe students, I often think: "I couldn't have done that when I was a student." And I say that very sincerely.

What will the start of the next academic year be like?

No one can predict for sure what the start of the next academic year will be like. But we have every reason to be hopeful, especially if vaccination can be carried out on a large scale in the coming months. We will do our utmost to get as many students as possible back on campus as safely as possible. And as soon as this becomes clearer, we will let all our students and staff know.