The ANU Teaching Break and the Problem of Perspective

The ANU Teaching Break petition has surpassed 5,100 signatures as I’m writing this. It’s been endorsed by the ACT branch of the National Union of Students (NUS) and the (National Tertiary Education Union) NTEU ANU Branch Committee, and shared over Facebook countless times. Still, the ANU has decided against implementing a teaching break. 

 It is difficult to weigh up the needs of thousands of students when each are impacted in their own way, particularly during a crisis as unprecedented for the university as the current Canberra outbreak. Therefore, this decision highlights a problem of perspective – we can never truly understand what other students are going through or need at a time like this. Mass support or campaigning for a policy should never be reason enough to adopt it. All complications must be carefully considered to see whether it is truly the best for the student body. This is why the ANU executive decision-makers are paid the big bucks – to utilise their years of experience to weigh up stakeholder interests with care. 

 So why did the executive decide against a teaching break? I am fascinated to find out, and believe it will lead to a greater understanding of how these decisions are made. The ANU has yet to put out an official statement to all students about the teaching break yet, other than a VC’s update instructing us to “reset over the weekend” and “hang in there”, along with an update on the Vice-Chancellor’s sourdough. The few arguments I can gather come from Woroni, Observer and RiotACT articles. Going over these arguments, I do not find them convincing, and am no closer to understanding their decision. 

 Argument No 1: No Adjustment to Online Learning is Required

I begin with the weakest argument from the ANU – that no teaching break is required because all classes are already remote. This argument was made before the petition and, from what I can gather, has mostly left the discussion. According to the petition, this is not the purpose behind a proposed teaching break. Instead, it is to give students a chance to catch up on classes and assessments missed due to the severe disruptions of the outbreak. Students have to quarantine, wait for hours to get tested, and deal with the sheer mental stress of COVID cases potentially showing up on campus. The petition comments also highlighted the requirement for students to catch up in light of disrupted mental health, diminished financial security, and increased hours required of essential workers supporting the response to the outbreak. 

 Argument No 2: Current Academic Leniency Measures Are Enough

In his VC’s Update, Schmidt outlines a Student Safety Net Package in response to the outbreak, with no mention of a teaching break. Students on ANU Confessions have also recommended applying for extensions or special consideration. CRS/CRN, Census Date postponement and replacing the WN grade with WD grade are definitely wins for students, but is it enough?

 Firstly, these measures, including extensions and special consideration, are focussed solely on assessments. It is good that students may CRS/CRN their courses if they could not do assessments due in Weeks 4 and 5 due to the severe disruptions of lockdown. However, assessments are not the only thing required of students – another painful reality is that students are missing classes. Missing class is different to missing assessments – it’s cumulative. Missing out on workshops in Week 4 due to waiting in a testing line means that, when Week 5 comes, a student will be unable to get the most out of the workshop without first catching up on preliminary work. Add to this that we are unlikely to see the end of the lockdown for the next week, and students could be forced to catch up on two weeks of work by the time they get to Week 6. 

 Students can get assignment extensions, but the reality is that without a one-week postponement of classes, exams will go ahead at the regular time. It is more difficult, and more consequential, to defer an exam, and so when students reach the end of the semester they may be faced with a mountain of uncompleted coursework. Therefore, it does not seem that these concessions from the ANU truly take into consideration the scale of disruption to students’ lives.

 Argument No 3: The Petition Represents the View of a Minority of Students

As with any decision affecting thousands of people, group consensus is very hard to judge without proper data – which the ANU does not have the time or resources to gather. The reality is that it will always be guesswork. A petition is not representative of all students because there’s nowhere to voice discontent. However, this is not the purpose of a petition – it is not a plebiscite or referendum, it is simply an avenue to voice support. The ANU states that the petition represents a minority of students. I will be charitable and assume they did not intend this to mean that anyone who didn’t sign the petition is against the policy – engagement with student advocacy is bound to have a lower rate overall, and so 5,100 signatures is still a significant turn-out. I assume that the executive has some other data to back this up, and would be happy to accept their argument if they could produce it.

 Furthermore, there is also the Schmidtposting poll with 4.2 percent of respondents saying the teaching break would disadvantage them, and 95.8 percent saying it would benefit them. This, again, is not an infallible indicator. A public poll leads to a potential of social desirability bias – students being scared to vote against a perceived group consensus. Several students are also not part of Schmidtposting, and we are yet to receive the results from the International Student Department’s (ISD) internal survey.

 Yes, neither the petition nor poll is enough to conclude that the majority of students want a teaching break. Yet, with such significant numbers it must be asked – why hasn’t the executive at least addressed the teaching break more head-on? I imagine these sources would at least merit an open and frank discussion, and yet the executive seems to have dismissed it entirely.

 Argument 4: Some Students wWill be Disadvantaged by a Teaching Break

In my opinion, the ANU’s strongest argument is that a teaching break would actively disadvantage some students. Much like the Survival Lottery, where many individuals are saved from the organ donations of one healthy donor, it would be unreasonable for the executive to implement a teaching break if it severely negatively impacts a small number of students. The disadvantages mentioned in this Observer article include pressure being placed on the second half of semester and the semester being longer than necessary.

 Here is where the problem of perspective is most obvious – how do we balance the needs of these students? The petition comments mention severe disruptions to mental health, physical safety, financial security and academic safety caused by the outbreak, and highlights how a teaching break would address these. Is having a shorter summer comparable? Here is where I admit that I am at a loss. The problem of perspective means that we cannot imagine how serious the consequences of a teaching break would truly be to some. Short of releasing identifiable information on students, I think the executive highlighting some of these issues would lead me to a better understanding of why this decision was made. 

However, even as I concede that the teaching break may cause serious problems for some students, I can’t help but think that this is the case for many policies. This is why we have institutions in place to ensure equity – students unreasonably affected by a policy can reach out to their lecturers, student associations or accessibility departments to ask for support. If we take the Schmidtposting poll to be anywhere close to reality, 4.2 percent   of students would have to seek this support in light of a teaching break. These students would have to reach out for assistance. In a university that’s shown to be under-resourced during this outbreak, it would be a wise choice to ask these students to reach out for support, lightening the load caused by special consideration requests, extension requests, and degree structure changes caused by the outbreak.

 Once again, however, this all depends on the severity of the consequences for both sides. Administrative issues can be resolved with time and effort. Disruptions to mental health, physical wellbeing and financial security take a significantly larger toll. 

 Final Thoughts

I must admit that I’m biased with this whole issue. I’m an on-campus student and have been subject to quarantine so often that I cannot guarantee whether I’ll be able to attend class any day this week. My purpose, as I’ve stated, is to better understand the decision by the executive, not to advocate for a teaching break. All my assumptions could be wrong. So, I implore you. Please, if you can answer this question for me, let me know in the Facebook comments. This way we can have a more frank discussion and better understanding of how our university executive weighs up decisions that affect everyone.