Leftist students for social progress.

Month: January 2022

FOI Reveals Minister Harris Discredited Student Voices during Exams

An FOI request put forward by László Molnárfi, Chairperson of Students4Change and Gisèle Scanlon, President of the Graduate Students’ Union, on behalf of the #NoInPersonExams national campaign to Minister Harris’ Office has now been granted. The reason for the FOI request was to ascertain a timeline in which Minister Harris engaged with the 5,000 student and staff signatures of the open letter so that he can make a balanced and fair decision relating to in-person examinations. The #NoInPersonExams open letter is spearheaded by two Trinity students, undergraduate László Molnárfi and postgraduate Giséle Scanlon, and has amassed over 5,000 signatures, which were delivered to Minister Harris in good faith on the 1st of December 2021.

Today we have received the results of this FOI. The correspondance which we received contains 6 records were granted to us after we asked for “Documents, communications regarding the decision of Minister Harris to not intervene in Universities holding in-person exams for Semester 1 of 2021-2022. Any communication between Minister Harris and Donnelly for this issue including the meeting minutes of the meetings that Minister Harris had with
management, staff and student representatives. E.g. the one on December 1st
2021 with the student unions” and “Documents, communications regarding Minister Harris’ and the Department of Further Education “s consideration of the #NoInPersonExams open letter, which was delivered to the Minister’s Office on 52 Stephens Green on the 1st of December 2021”.

As early as November 19th 2021 at a meeting of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group the issue of Semester 1 examinations across Universities and Technological Universities was discussed. Minister Harris said in his opening remarks that “Decisions in relation to examinations should be taken in accordance with the framework in place i.e. on the basis of risk assessment and consultation”, according to meeting minutes.

At the same meeting, the Union of Students Ireland (USI) President Claire Austick raised the issue of having alternative options for students not able to attend in-person examinations, according to meeting minutes of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group.

Dr Joseph Ryan from THEA, the Technological Higher Education Association, brought concerns relating to increasing levels of anxiety surrounding examinations.

The IUA’s representative at the meeting stated the importance of alternative examination arrangements and also access to PCR tests. The IUA is short for the Irish Universities Association and they represent DCU, Maynooth Uni, NUI Galway, TCD, TU Dublin, UCC, UCD and the University of Limerick. The IUA is composed of the Presidents of each of these Colleges.

Just a month later, at the next meeting of the Steering Committee on the 10th of December 2021, in the middle of exams, Minister Harris in his opening remarks is seen to call the student voices, like NUIGSU, who called out instititutions not creating safe exam conditions to be lies. He called upon stakeholders to “debunk misinformation regarding the application of public health advice”. He also said that an agreement was reached that a “one size fits all approach is not appropriate” – this agreement must be referring to the government’s own decision, as meeting minute do not indicate any sort of direct discussion on the topic.

Dr Breda Smyth, is the director of public health for the Health Service Executive in the west, and also is one of the leaders of the Unicov project.

Claure Austick, USI President, after the opening remarks of Minister Harris, reiterated the importance of alternative options for assesment students in light of rising Covid-19 cases.

The IUA suddenly at this meeting agreed with Minister Harris, contradicting students’ and staff’s account on a number of issues, namely the amount of in-person exams, whether these exams are safe and whether there are proper alternative arrangements (e.g. deferral mechanisms) in place. They also claim that whenever an exam was postponed due to Storm Bara, it was moved to a different date “in agreement with local student unions”, but this was clearly not the case for NUI Galway’s Saturday exams.

Stella Griffin from FORSA, an Irish trade union, noted concern for invigilators (since they are older and more at-risk) in exam halls at the meeting.

It does not seem that at these meetings Minister Harris allowed much discussion, either at the November meeting, or at the December one, despite claiming to do so. His Office had already made up their minds before hearing any of the other stakeholders, and the government seems to not have listened to student and staff concerns. It seems that at the November meeting, promises and suggestions were made by a variety of stakeholders that were never implemented by the government. Proper deferral was not implemented across many universities – 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring according to a recent survey, and PCR testing at the time of the Christmas exams was very difficult to access. Eyewitness reports, pictures and videos detail crowded scenes in examination halls. It seems that those in-charge have no clue what is going on on-the-ground.

Following the 10th of December meeting, a document which describes how to answer questions from TDs in the Dail relating to in-person exams was disseminated to government members. It said that the key messaging must be that all stakeholders were consulted. Furthermore, it crafted a reply to possible “opposition attack lines”.

Another meeting was held just between Minister Harris and the USI and different SUs on the 1st of December 2021. The briefing document prepared for Minister Harris for this meeting shows that Minister Harris’ Office essentially let Universities take the blame. This was re-iterated to the representatives at the meeting, who raised the issue of #NoInPersonExams.

Briefing document.

As far as whether the Minister’s Office considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter with 5,000 signatures, they did not. They put it in the government system, but there is no indication that Minister Harris or others in the government took the time to engage with the signatories. This shows a huge disrespect for the 5,000 students and staff who raised the mental and physical dangers of in-person examinations and is an affront to the democratic process.

This was the only communication and document relating to the FOI about whether the government considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter. Branding the Graduate Students’ Union of Trinity a “protest group” just shows how out-of-touch Minister Harris’ Office is with student representation on-the-ground.

Find all the original FOI documents here. Note that for the briefing document mentioned just a moment ago, there were supposed to be “redacted” parts, but the government failed to redact it properly – you can simply copy-paste from the PDF, so we made an unredacted version which describes different issues relating to third-level education at the moment.

We would hope that the Minister has learnt lessons from this, namely that the next time we call to deliver a petition with several thousands signatures and hundreds of thousands of social media interactions, that the Minister will have the good grace to engage with not only the content of the petition, but should extend appropriate respect to the many thousand voters who took the time and consideration to be a part of the campaign.

#NoInPersonExams Survey Results

We are publishing the worrying results of our #NoInPersonExams survey, in which students from across the country participated. 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring. 57% said that they were financially affected, and 65% had to travel with public transport for their exams. 75% lived with someone at-risk, and 85%/98% said that there was no adequate social distancing in the exam hall / in the outside line. 71% of students have heard of others going into the exam hall despite being positive, and 57% of students have heard of others becoming positive following an exam. Find the general and per-University results in full at this link, including comments from students.

How to make an FOI request and expose the secrets of your Institution

At Students4Change we aim to empower you with the tools to make change and effective activism. An FOI request allows you to request any data from any public body, even data considered confidential. It is free and legal right enshrined in the 2014 FOI Act.

For example, we have used an FOI request before to expose Trinity’s 2.5 million euro investments in the war-industry.

It is a very powerful tool as it allows you to gather data. For example, most students would feel that a refund for last year is a fair demand, as online College was disengaging and it made no sense to pay so much money for it.

However, to prove this, statistics are needed. For example, from the big SUrvey from last year we know that 71.4% did not feel part of the College community in 2020-2021 due to online learning, which suggests that the student experience was greatly reduced. From an FOI request, we also know that the total number of students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) who withdrew in the academic year 2020/21 during the pandemic was 1,231 (higher than previous years) December 2020, further supporting this argument. This can then be packaged into e.g. a report or a press release which supports refunds.

Some other examples of FOIs requests that we have done:

  • To discover that Trinity’s use of the RDS for exams costs them 0.5 million euros.
  • That the number of students with overdue tuition debt last March was 506.
  • That there are only 180 academics with Non-EEA nationality as of May 2020 in College… etc.

To make an FOI request for Trinity College Dublin, you have to fill out a PDF form, which you can do online, and then you have to send on this form to the email address [email protected] .

Here is a link to the FOI request PDF form, and here is a link to an online PDF editor called Smallpdf. When making our FOI request for Trinity’s investments, for example, this is how we filled it out.

It is a similar process in other Universities, like for University College Dublin. There the email is [email protected] and the form can be found here.

The same investment FOI as a filled-out example can be downloaded here.

Some tips:

GSU-S4C Joint Statement on Schols

.

                  7th January 2022

.

Dear undergraduates and postgraduates

.

We are writing to highlight an urgent issue that has come to the attention of the GSU Executive, Students4Change and the Chair of the GSU Board.

.

It has come to our attention that the Schols Examinations will proceed on Monday January 10th, 2022 with formal communication being issued as late as late last night Thursday 6th to students this week in relation to these exams. This lack of communication and engagement with the Schols secretary, Schols applicants and indeed student representatives raises deep concerns. We have included here links to all known information contained on the Schols pages of Trinity College Dublin.

.

In a GSU Executive meeting held yesterday, several issues were discussed around Schols and the following concerns were raised:

.

1. The timing amidst high numbers of Omicron cases in the community does not take into account the risk of illness leading up to or during the exam dates which will disadvantage students. Therefore, we are asking TCD to space out tables and limit room capacity to a lower number and to please distribute FFP2 masks which offer high-grade protection to all those students sitting Schols and to those invigilating exams.
2.We understand that the exams are to run at 60% capacity (similar to the RDS) and will be invigilated by postgraduate invigilators but this raises the same issues which we campaigned vehemently on regarding the safety and working conditions of invigilation staff, such as requiring postgraduate invigilators to clean up Covid-19 storage bags. We would ask College to provide sufficient bin capacity so that students can dispose of their bags that may be contaminated.
3.The GSU and S4C would like to raise concerns about accessibility. The pandemic has further excluded students with underlying conditions or disabilities (there’s no mention of disabled students nor accommodations highlighted on the website pertaining to Schols). We believe that this could easily dissuade students from applying, especially this (as opposed to last) year.
4.Preparing for Schols is the most restrictive aspect of the Schols experience. Many students who are sustaining a job for example, do not have the time to dedicate to studying for the exams and are disadvantaged. This is especially true this year, when those students working will be exposed to the public and could easily become ill or worse bring illness to the exam space to other Schol hopefuls and to postgraduate invigilators.
5.Discriminating factors we have identified with Schols for undergraduates who will eventually become membersof the postgraduate in community (as the funding given extends to a Schol until they are postgraduate students.
6.There has been previous debate on whether Schols should exist – current funding runs over 1.5 million to maintain accommodation, food, and a small stipend, but we believe that academic merit and tradition are important pillars of our student community and should facilitate gender culture, race and disability (both hidden and mental and physical).
7.Last year’s Schols exams were online, which came with its own set of challenges. Accessibility has become one of the central facets in combating the pandemic. Covid-19 has forced each of us to tailor certain practices, in particular towards the online arena, so as to curb its transmission. This year, College has not put in place an adequate hybrid learning environment for students in Semester 1. Contradictory communications, such as backtracking on promised remote access to learning, were issued in the first months of the academic term and resulted in students stuck at home and abroad not being able to prepare for their exams. In addition, with a large share of learning having taken place online, some students might feel unprepared to take in-person handwritten exams. In a recent survey, 66% of students indicated from our College that they had most of their teaching online in the first Semester. As far back as October, students were petitioning to move the Schols examinations online via an open letter signed by students from across departments. When surveyed today, candidate Scholars did not agree on switching to an exclusively-online way of assessment at the last minute, nor did they agree with keeping it solely in-person. From a sample of 52, no majority is for either online or in-person. 19.2% are for in-person and 28.8% are for online, the rest for postponement. Therefore, due to the divided opinions of all those applying for Schols, we are not asking for any shifts structure or time-wise, but we are disappointed at College’s slow reaction to community feedback.
8.As for Proctoring, being monitored and taking a real-time online exam during a pandemic will feed into the extraordinary stress students have been under since this September 2021. The additional stress can result in mental distress or even physical discomfort from headaches to panic attacks. Besides, the stress and discomfort arising from being monitored will affect the students’ performances. Discriminating factors we have considered with Proctorio at the Graduate Students’ Union which we believe would bring undue anxiety and stress:

[a] Infrastructure (affording a computer or internet at home) is stressful.

[b] Living conditions (shared rooms where students can take their exams

without being disturbed and can concentrate. Students might live in

accommodations that are loud because of many reasons from nearby

constructions or motorway to crowded apartments).

[c] Students with caring duties might find it difficult to find someone to take care of their children while they are sitting an exam or making clear that they

are under no circumstance be disturbed which induces anxiety.

The use of online proctoring software such as Proctorio violates student privacy and creates unnecessary barriers to exam-taking. It should not be used in Trinity College Dublin.

9.Whilst we very much appreciate the effort being made by those organising the in-person exams which 898 Schols students are slated to take starting Monday January 10th, 2022 these plans present several issues. Students may not wish to sacrifice personal health and safety by sitting an in-person exam and are then asked to choose between maintaining privacy and maintaining safety during a pandemic. International students who made plans around the holiday and exam period with the exam information given in November are currently abroad or in other countries and may contract the virus whilst returning to sit Schols which leads us to our following ask.
10.To sum up, the issue is one of poor communication and lack of choice… the lack of transparency, coupled with the lack of stakeholder consultation relating to the Schols exams . We held a consultation with several Schols in College as well as potential Schols who will sit the exams next week and the most unsatisfactory issue is if a student becomes too ill to sit Schols between Monday January 10th and Friday January 14th. The students’ only option is to sit the exam in January 2023. This locks a potential scholar out of funding for a whole year of their lives. We are insisting that a second sitting of the exams must take place before Trinity Monday in late June 2022 to accommodate these potential Schols, therefore no-one is left behind.

.

.

The GSU and S4C expresses concern in relation to the upcoming Schols examinations and presents a number of recommendations. The health and safety of undergraduate students and postgraduate invigilators must be of the utmost importance and we hope that College will listen to our concerns and asks to ensure the wellbeing of our Community.

.

Gisèle Scanlon, President, Graduate Students’ Union +353864120444

.

László Molnárfi, Chairperson, Students4Change +32 470583174

Schols Survey Results Favours Postponement or Postponement until Hybrid Exam

This is not a statement yet, just a few bits of data.

When surveyed, candidate Scholars did not agree on an exclusively-online or exclusively in-person system as of 06/01/2022 17:17. From a sample of 53, no majority is for either online or in-person. 18.9% are for in-person and 28.3% are for online, the rest 52.8% for postponement. However, many students, upon seeing that there was no hybrid option in the form, have indicated to Students4Change that they are in favour of a hybrid system, as that is the most fair, and stressed the importance of mechanisms which ensure academic integrity.

A few comments from students as follows.

“I think another option might be to offer online exams to those who have covid but who are still well enough to sit the exam, just so that they don’t have to wait until next year to get a chance at schols. It would prevent anyone from going into the exam hall knowing they have covid too”


“Offering a deferral for next year really isn’t a fair alternative”

“People studying for schols have been working under the assumption that it’s in person this whole time, so a complete change of plans might do more harm, but people also shouldn’t have to wait a year to retake for something they can’t control”

© 2022 Students4Change

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑