Germany opts to keep teaching online to avoid spreading Covid

Denmark and Switzerland holding more in-person classes

August 20, 2020
Berlin traffic billboard with health advice during coronavirus shutdown
Source: iStock

German campuses are likely to remain relatively subdued this autumn even though the country has been weathering the pandemic better than most so far, as university heads plump for safety over the benefits of face-to-face teaching.

Although the situation will vary from campus to campus and state to state, just 10 to 15 per cent of teaching is likely to be in person in the coming semester, according to private estimates from one senior figure in the German sector.

In July, German rectors unanimously agreed to prioritise protecting health, even stressing how risky campuses could be as vectors of infection.

This was despite a public letter signed by more than 2,000 academics decrying the “forced digitalisation” of university teaching. A move away from face-to-face teaching would end the university as a “place of encounter”, they said.

Some newspaper columnists went as far as to argue that moving online violated academics’ freedom to teach and research. But university presidents do not want to find themselves accused of irresponsibility if campus outbreaks emerge in the autumn, Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), has countered.

Among the country’s students, who do not pay tuition fees, there appears to have been little clamour for a return to campus to receive “value for money”.

Reflecting the range of campus openness across Europe, Danish universities will be much more in-person come the autumn. Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, estimated that 35 to 45 per cent of teaching would be online. Restrictions on concentrations of people mean that large lectures have been “recalibrated”, he said. There is no general face mask mandate on Danish campuses, he said, although face coverings will be used where “close physical contact is unavoidable”.

In Switzerland, some universities are making masks compulsory, but at others they need to be worn only when people cannot keep one and a half metres apart. It is impossible to say exactly how much teaching will take place face-to-face, said Martina Weiss, general secretary of Swiss Universities, but the umbrella body has said that, in principle, campuses should be as normal as possible from the autumn and that teaching should return to classrooms.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: German campuses quiet but Danish and Swiss plot return

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