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Rectors resist call to shut down coming semester

Fallout from coronavirus haunts universities, but leaders stay hopeful that term can continue

A demand to cancel the upcoming summer term in Germany, backed by thousands of professors, has met with resistance from several higher education organisations, including the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK).

The conference responded to the call, set out in an open letter published two weeks ago, by saying that the summer semester 2020 must go ahead in order to avoid blanks in students’ learning and the CVs of researchers. The summer term is scheduled to begin on 14 April, but universities across the country remain closed to students in order to combat the spread of coronavirus.

“In the interests of students, lecturers and researchers, this must not be a wasted semester,” said HRK vice-president Ulrich Radtke. “All the efforts of the universities are aimed at continuing the academic work as comprehensively as possible. This means that for students, this time must count as a period of study if they wish to do so. And for teachers and researchers, there must be no gaps in their biography in terms of teaching experience or research achievements.”

The HRK’s bid to make the coming semester count was supported by the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). “The summer semester should not simply be lost,” said DHV president Bernhard Kempen. “Instead of stagnation, commitment is the order of the day.”

DAAD president Joybrato Mukherjee said that German and international students should not be suffering disadvantages, as other countries continue teaching. The DAAD proposed an alternative solution—the optional semester—which, in contrast to the compulsory standard semester, should offer a wide range of opportunities to try out digital teaching and examinations.

However, the DAAD also points out that online activity cannot replace classroom teaching and a normal academic schedule.

Disagreement over cancelling the upcoming semester was also voiced by state-level university associations like the Association of the Bavarian Universities of Applied Sciences. “In the interest of our students, we must do everything in our power to maintain the university’s teaching activities despite the corona crisis,” said association head Walter Schober. He pointed toward progress in establishing digital teaching platforms.

The professors behind the original proposal, however, insisted the semester should be cancelled, or at least changed to something not measured by traditional grades. “Let’s call it non-semester, flexi-semester, optional semester, creative semester,” they said in an updated statement last week. “The main thing is that we take note of the current situation at colleges, academies and universities not only from the perspective of the strong.”

The professors pointed out that students were particularly hard hit by the Covid-19 lockdown, as their jobs are largely in the service sector. Students, especially those without permanent homes or those from abroad, are also less likely to have the necessary infrastructure and comfort to work efficiently from home, they said.

The DAAD also expressed concerns about the financial welfare of students, as many of the traditional student jobs, such as table waiting, childcare and work in bars and coffee shops, are now unavailable. The organisation said that universities would have to be provided with additional money to support students in need.

According to the DAAD, this also includes international students, who are often even more dependent on part-time jobs than German students.