Anger over Birmingham’s crisis switch to ‘generic mega-modules’

Institution’s efforts to make teaching more coronavirus-resilient could mean research-led teaching is ‘jettisoned’, critics claim

June 18, 2020
Three people dressed in red, white and blue suits with clocks for heads
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A Russell Group university’s plans to make its courses more resilient to coronavirus infections by ensuring at least three academics teach on each module have been criticised over concerns that the move will make education less research-intensive and staff “more replaceable”.

Under new “educational resilience” plans adopted by the University of Birmingham, all modules in 2020-21 must be taught by at least three academic staff to avoid disruption if any one of them falls ill with coronavirus.

To make this possible, the university has recommended that schools “reduce the number of optional modules on offer”, suggesting that first-year undergraduates are limited to compulsory modules and that “some level of reduced optionality” is introduced for third- and fourth-year students, according to a framework document for 2020-21 circulated by Kathy Armour, the university’s pro vice-chancellor for education, which has been published online.

The move is part of wider plans, including the introduction of online lectures, which, according to the framework document, will “underpin institutional and programme resilience, deliver a sustainable curriculum, and maintain a high quality and supportive learning experience for all students”.

But the plans, which were passed by the university’s senate on 10 June, have been criticised by students and staff after reports that departments have been forced to cut dozens of optional modules.

Almost 1,000 students have now signed a petition titled “Don’t cut our courses at the University of Birmingham”, which states that the move is “completely unethical and not what students signed up for”.

“We have seen emails that suggest a ‘massive’ reduction in the number of modules provided across the university and have seen reports from reps in one department that 39 final year modules will be reduced to just 12,” says the petition.

A Birmingham academic, who did not wish to be named, told Times Higher Education that staff were “shocked, bewildered and upset” at the plans to introduce “generic mega-modules”.

“This has all been carried out in the name of ‘resilience’ but many of us suspect that by making lecturers essentially ‘jacks-of-all-trades’ rather than experts in our fields, it may be easier to remove individuals without having to find like-for-like replacements,” the lecturer said.

“Management is using the pandemic as a smokescreen for the steamrolling through of a programme of long-term radical restructuring,” he continued, adding that “the idea of research-led teaching, for years at the heart of the Russell Group pedagogical philosophy, will be jettisoned”.

David Bailey, co-chair of Birmingham’s University and College Union branch, told THE that staff’s “main concern is that [team-taught modules] make academic staff far more replaceable as many academics will now be teaching generic modules rather than their specialism”.

This means “they can be easily replaced, and potentially even made redundant if that proves necessary”, he added.

“In many parts of the university it is being imposed in a rather rigid way and without room for flexibility, causing serious concerns about the quality of education provision amongst academic staff,” said Dr Bailey.

A Birmingham spokesman said the framework reflected considerations such as when testing, tracing and isolating regimes "mean individual staff and students could be required to be off campus at short notice, the need for some staff and students to remain off campus until a vaccine or treatment is found, and the additional support that all students will require in order to learn successfully in this context."  

"There will still be primary academic staff acting as module leads but resilient and supportive teams will ensure continuity and reduced pressure on individual members of staff should there be any disruption caused by illness, caring responsibilities or other unforeseen event," he said.

“All universities are making these and many other adjustments to teaching, learning and assessment for the next academic year.”

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Reader's comments (3)

It really shows how out of touch and incompetent senior management are in UK Universities, they do not have a clue about the interaction of students and their lecturers or how to handle a crisis. They are trying to save money on the front line when they should be slashing the non-front line managerial and bureaucratic jobs that have infected UK universities. These jobs are basically overpaid and actually hinder research and teaching on the front line by making academics waste their time going to their stupid meetings and fill their silly forms that no one reads apart from the bureaucrats.
Very true!
I don't see it as evidence for incompetence. Rather, I think it is a calculated step towards permitting them to remove teaching staff since more teaching can be replaced by others. UoM has had a series of financial difficulties and redundancies that has now been exacerbated by the covid lockdown. The management is simply paving the way to make more redundancies. It is a calculated move and not incompetence. Higher management is always self-serving - they always think they are more essential than everyone else - teaching, professional services, porters, cleaners are always the first to go - you never hear VCs, Deputy VCs or Pro VCs being fired due to lockdown do you? lol