Uppsala University, Sweden

Month: May 2020

Distance education requirement relaxed

At a press conference at 13:00 today, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, Minister for Education Anna Ekström and Minister for Higher Education and Research Matilda Ernkrans announced that the Public Health Agency of Sweden recommendation on distance education will be withdrawn on 15 June and that upper secondary schools, colleges and universities will then be able to resume more normal activities. However, where higher education is concerned, some components of education may still need to be delivered in a modified form in order to comply with the Public Health Agency’s general recommendations on maintaining distance and avoiding large social gatherings.

This means that students and university teachers can prepare for a transition to more on-campus education. Yet it will not be entirely business as usual this autumn. The Public Health Agency’s general guidelines and recommendations remain in effect, and consequently higher education institutions have a responsibility to modify their teaching and reduce the spread of infection. The students also bear a great personal responsibility.

Today’s announcement is in line with what we were expecting and gives us both greater flexibility for the summer and clearer – if not unequivocal – planning conditions for the autumn semester.

Generally speaking, following this announcement we should stop taking about distance education – except in cases where we formally classify courses as pure distance learning courses. What we will be conducting in the autumn, as a rule, is on-campus teaching with more or less extensive elements of digital modes of instruction. Certain types of courses and components that have a limited number of participants and where it is possible to maintain reasonable physical distancing, can be conducted roughly as usual. Others may need to be modified or carried out in digital form. Teachers and students in at-risk groups may also need special consideration. This also applies to international students who may have difficulty getting here for the start of the semester.

The decision sets out the parameters for this autumn’s education. We will now immediately initiate a process aimed at issuing a decision in good time before 15 June on how the new directives are to be interpreted and complied with at Uppsala University, during the summer and ahead of the autumn semester.

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Planning for the autumn semester: on campus or remote?

We are getting a lot of signals that students and teachers would like to know what will happen in the autumn: should we prepare to return to on-campus education or continue with distance education?

We are not going to take a decision on this now. The reason is that we do not want to force all programmes and courses to be deivered remotely this autumn before we know it is absolutely essential. In the current situation our hands are tied by the recommendation of the government and the Public Health Agency of Sweden imposing distance education. Our hope is that the restrictions will ease up so that we can at least have a partial return to on-campus education in the autumn. This is in line with the signals we are receiving from others who are more knowledgeable about these matters than we are. We therefore ask you to be patient a little longer and plan for alternative scenarios.

Studenter BMC Foto. Mikael Wallerstedt

It would be particularly desirable to be able to welcome our new students – our freshers – to campus in the autumn. The introduction to university studies is important, and is best experienced on campus if possible. Even if things work out as we hope, we are fairly sure that it will not be business as usual. We will still have to observe rules of hygiene and maintain distance, and certain restrictions are likely to persist. Consequently, even if on-campus teaching is possible in the autumn, this will require responsible management and careful consideration. This means that the online types of instruction we have developed will certainly need to be used to some extent.

Anna Jonsson Cornell

Our advice at present is to plan for a scenario in which students and teachers can meet in various ways, but not gather too closely or in large groups – in other words, a modified form of on-campus teaching. One request on our part is to give priority to first-year students, so that they can get to know our study environment, our buildings and facilities, teachers, each other and our city. We will ask students’ unions and student nations to make special welcoming efforts this autumn. We know that a good start is vital for the whole student career.

Studenter Geocentrum Foto. Mikael Wallerstedt

Courses or teaching components that for one reason or another are best continued remotely will naturally be allowed to do so this autumn, even if the restrictions have been relaxed. As we have said before, no matter when the government and the Public Health Agency cancel their decisions and recommendations imposing remote teaching and assessment, the Vice-Chancellor will not issue a decision ordering everyone to return to campus immediately. The return to campus-based teaching will happen in the way and at the pace judged best at local level.

Some have already made strategic decisions that their international Master’s programmes, to begin with, will be delivered both on campus and remotely this autumn, to enable international students to join in on campus later in the programme. We think this is excellent, as it is impossible to predict what the possibilities of travelling will look like in different countries in a few months.

Studenter BMC Foto. Mikael Wallerstedt

As regards those who have received approval for exchange studies in the autumn, Uppsala University has urged them all also to apply for courses/programmes at home so as to have a good alternative in case it should be impossible to go through with the exchange as planned or in case they themselves feel that they do not want to travel. Normally it is not possible to keep both the option of studies at home and the option of an approved exchange open, but we have allowed an exceptional solution because of the situation. Whether or not it turns out to be possible to go ahead with exchange studies depends not just on what the Swedish authorities say but also on the host institution and the regulations in that country. Uppsala University will not take a general decision to cancel all exchange studies (or the possibility of coming here as an incoming student) unless the Public Health Agency of Sweden and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs recommend/advise against travel.

To sum up, we are prepared to wait for at least another month or two before taking more definitive decisions about the autumn and are closely monitoring the course of the pandemic and the recommendations of the Public Health Agency so as to be able to issue clearer information as soon as possible. We know the uncertainty is problematic, but we are doing this with the best interests of the students in mind and in the hope that we will be able, at least in part, to conduct on-campus education this autumn.

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The decision today: Remote education this summer with some exceptions

Today I, as Vice-Chancellor, decided that teaching and assessment will be conducted remotely this summer, until 30 August 2020.

At the same time, I also decided to allow disciplinary domain/faculty boards to grant certain exemptions for specific elements in exceptional circumstances. The term ‘specific elements’ means, for example, mandatory and practical tasks that cannot be carried out remotely but demand physical presence in the University’s premises or elsewhere (e.g. field trips). Exemptions may be granted on condition that measures are taken to ensure the campus-based activity can be conducted in a way that limits the risk of infection. Decisions on exemptions may be delegated to vice-rectors/deans. The students must be consulted before taking a decision.

Today’s decision also permits exemptions from the remote assessment requirement for individual students receiving special educational support, as long as it is possible to comply with the recommendations of the Public Health Agency of Sweden and the examiner considers it feasible. Our focus is on ensuring the best interests of our students, within the framework of government guidelines and Public Health Agency of Sweden recommendations.

With regard to travel and meetings, no business travel abroad will be allowed as long as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs continues to advise against travel, which is currently until 15 July. International conferences and visits are cancelled during the corresponding period. National conferences and other gatherings should preferably be held by electronic means.

At all face-to-face meetings, physical distancing must be practised and remote participation must be facilitated. My own rule of thumb would be a third of the usual number allowed in a venue.

Having said this, it is time for us to begin preparations for gradually increasing the staff presence at our workplaces again. Careful readers of the decision that takes effect on 8 June will observe that a word has changed. The decision still directs that anyone with symptoms must stay at home and that individuals in at-risk groups should work from home if possible. The rule for other staff is that they may work from home with the agreement of their manager if the work situation allows it. This should be interpreted to mean that it remains both acceptable and desirable for us to work from home part of the week (which will help reduce crowding at the workplace and on public transport), but there is an increased expectation that, in the absence of any special reasons, employees will be physically present at the workplace for parts of their working time.

Finally, a cliffhanger. We will be back in a separate post in this blog tomorrow with assessments and a decision update ahead of the autumn semester.

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Research infrastructure and lifelong learning on the agenda

Yesterday the government announced a number of measures in areas that are highly relevant to us. This included a welcome announcement that an inquiry is now being appointed to make proposals on the organisation, governance and financing of research infrastructure at national level.

Cryo Centre at the FREIA Laboratory

Research infrastructure is a topic that has been raised repeatedly by Uppsala University and other stakeholders – research funding bodies, higher education institutions and companies – in input to the research bill and in public debate. As research has grown more dependent on increasingly expensive and advanced methods and equipment, infrastructure has become a make-or-break issue for Sweden as a research nation. This area is currently underfinanced and requires a comprehensive approach to issues of governance and responsibility. Here the Principals’ Council at the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and the Universities’ Reference Group for Research Infrastructures at the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions have already done much to coordinate and take responsibility, but to put a new system in place, our politicians need to get involved. In our own input, we proposed the following:

• Draw up an overarching national strategy for research infrastructure, together with an associated funding strategy.

• Create long-term prerequisites for technical environments at the interface between basic research and industry.

• Invest a further SEK 1 billion to meet Sweden’s research infrastructure needs.

• Strengthen the research infrastructure at SciLifeLab.

• Take a special initiative to coordinate the national actors in digital research infrastructure.

We have not yet seen the inquiry’s terms of reference, so we mustn’t get too carried away. The inquiry chair, former Minister for Education and Research Tobias Krantz, should be well acquainted with the views of both higher education institutions and industry on research infrastructure. It is vital that the inquiry strikes the right balance and does not neglect long-term basic research for the sake of short-term benefits. Given his background in the humanities and social sciences, Mr Krantz should be able to take the needs in those fields into account as well. These are sometimes forgotten in discussions of research infrastructure. It is also positive that the inquiry has instructions to propose the organisation of a system and various funding options. We look forward to following the work of the inquiry, whose final report is due on 31 May 2021.

Another measure announced by the government yesterday is that the role of higher education institutions in lifelong learning will be clarified in the Higher Education Act. It is not clear what this means in practice, nor is it obvious that legislation as such is the best means of promoting lifelong learning. It is important to recognise that much is already being done in this area. The higher education institutions offer plenty of opportunities through numerous freestanding courses in every field of knowledge. However, these are not specifically classified as opportunities for continuing professional development and are therefore often forgotten in the debate. Besides the regular range of courses they offer, higher education institutions also conduct a great deal of contract education, i.e. specially designed courses for specific target groups. Having said that, we are naturally happy to welcome more people who need to change their professional focus or supplement their knowledge. Our role in this is self-evident. A rapidly changing labour market means increasing needs for continuing professional development, and the coronavirus pandemic has intensified the need to adapt.

In this connection, the government is also proposing an amendment to “promote academic freedom”. Needless to say, this is a crucial issue. The consultation period for these proposed legislative amendments runs until 1 September, so we will come back to these issues.

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Responsible Valborg and remote all semester

We would like to thank all students, staff, alumni, friends and partners for heeding our – and all of Uppsala’s – appeal to act responsibly on 30 April. A few months ago, no one would have believed a Walpurgis Eve in Uppsala could pass almost unnoticed like this. But the fact that we took responsibility together and avoided crowding this holiday was an important action, for the vulnerable, health services staff and society in general. You will all be welcome on 30 April 2021.

30 April 2020 at the time of the donning of the caps – just like any other day.

Today the decision to conduct education remotely was extended to apply for the rest of the semester, until 7 June. To ensure the best possible decision about arrangements in the summer, we expect to take a fresh decision in the second half of May, and then at some point in the summer we will decide about the start of the autumn semester. Although everyone likes to plan ahead, we think it is wise to avoid committing ourselves in the longer term; the virus situation and infection control measures can change in a few weeks/months.

If, as we all hope, the restrictions are relaxed and education on campus becomes fully or partially possible again, the return to campus will be managed in a sensible and practicable manner, taking local conditions in the University into account. This kind of flexibility will enable us, as a university, to make use of our experiences and lessons learned from this very demanding period. It may help us develop the quality of our educational programmes, for example, by choosing to retain digital elements that have proved preferable, while making the most of the important face-to-face interactions on campus.

None of us will forget this year, but if we can persevere and then, in the summer, find time for reflection and inspiration, our University can emerge from the crisis with renewed ambition and with wind in our sails.

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