Debate FINALLY has ‘Answers’ from the Vice Chancellor
By Jack Pirie
After multiple attempts and rescheduled meetings, Debate was finally able to secure an interview with the Vice Chancellor of AUT, Derek McCormack. Via Microsoft Teams, I was able to meet the Vice Chancellor and discuss the current situation revolving around AUT. With all that is going on with AUT, and New Zealand slowly returning to normal, now was the best time to get clarification to help students understand the current situation and what the future of AUT looks like. In our hour-long meeting we covered a variety of topics and a lot of ground.
Our first conversation was based around the initial struggles of going into lockdown and how AUT dealt with the situation. McCormack conveyed that the biggest struggle for the university was transitioning from an on-campus university to an online university. When asked about the decision-making process and the groups that helped make those decisions, the Vice Chancellor explained that there were “several decision makers” including leading academics, paper leaders, financial leaders, as well as “student communication.” As expected, until prompted there was very little discussion regarding the power dynamics within these decision-making groups. In a previous Debate interview with AUTSA President Sisifa Lui, we were able to uncover that AUTSA had to fight to get onto the COVID-19 Action Planning Group. In the initial phases, no formal invitation was given to AUTSA and there was absolutely no student consultation. Even when student consultation was finally given, it was, well, pretty lackluster on our end, with members of the Student Representative Council (SRC) feelings as if they were simply acting as “feedback chains.” When asked about AUTSA feeling like a “feedback chain” during these decision-making processes, McCormack continued to refute any accusations and instead went on to say that“ they are very satisfied with the communication they have between the two organisations.”
The Vice Chancellor said there were “regular meetings” with AUTSA and the SRC and that they were consistently “kept in the loop” throughout the decision-making process. However, McCormack also reiterated that “at the end of the day the University is responsible for making the decisions.” AUTSA does not bear the burden of decision making. The job of AUTSA is to put forward the students' voice “and it has been heard.”
When asked about the change in systems of learning, the Vice Chancellor said upsetting a number of students was “unavoidable,” however, at the end of the day “by in large we have provided something that works.” McCormack has said, “far too much has been made of the decision to go to block learning” and the reverse. When questioned about students feeling uninformed of the future of learning at AUT, McCormack asserted that he didn’t “think there was any uncertainty at all,” as the decision to revert to semester learning was made weeks before returning. McCormack has gone on to say that students’ lives being affected is an “overstatement.” It seems like the Vice Chancellor has shown a lack of empathy during this time. Empathy towards the international students that sat in uncertainty due to visa restraints that came with the extension of the school year. Empathy towards the students who bear financial challenges and would have had to make alternative summer job arrangements. Despite these concerns being an “overstatement”, they are very real and very relevant.
When asked about whether greater student consensus and consultation was needed during the block learning process, McCormack went on to say that “I don’t think that making decisions on the basis of some sort of referendum is going to be any more satisfying to students than us [AUT] making the decisions based off our experience on delivering education. Students would be badly served if we went out and asked what does everyone think… we want to factor in student opinion, and we do that, and we have done that throughout this period.” The Vice Chancellor goes on to say that the relationship with AUTSA is “good” and that “students have a very good opportunity for input at AUT.”
Another significant issue that needed addressing was the current situation in the halls of residence. When talking about the halls, the Vice Chancellor made it abundantly clear that the “University does not own either of the halls and we don’t manage them.” The Vice Chancellor went on to explain that, “what happened at the beginning of the lockdown, was that the managers of Campus Living Villages (CLV) decided to withdraw all of their staff and services.” AUT were forced to step in and make sure the students in the halls were sufficiently looked after. McCormack has once again said that “no students were pressured or forced to leave.” With no safety precautions or social distancing in place, we once again see McCormack disregarding and showing a lack of empathy towards vulnerable groups. Despite reiterating that no students were forced to leave, there were also a number of students who had to leave because they were immunocompromised. Because AUT failed to implement any safety precautions, these students had no option but to leave. The University provided three free meals a day for students that remained in halls, as well as rebate on rent for students who had left before entering alert level 4. The Vice Chancellor made it very clear to Debate that “we are not the owners… we are an intermediary… the full handling of the money was done completely independently.” The Vice Chancellor says AUT has acted in “good faith” in regard to the students to ensure they get some relief in costs during COVID-19.
a result of the outbreak of COVID-19 the University estimates that the financial loss sits at approximately $50 million NZD for the year 2020. However, the University has saved approximately over $500,000 per month in maintenance fees, including things such as water and power. The Vice Chancellor was able to share that the City Campus has been fully cleaned during lockdown and is preparing for what the VC referred to as “blended learning” moving into semester 2. The Vice Chancellor said that “we accept that there will be some impairment” for students during this online learning period. When asked about ‘grade bumps’ that the likes of Auckland University have integrated into their grading system, the VC said that AUT will not be following the same suit as AU. However, paper leaders and staff have been told to mark assignments empathically with an understanding of the difficulties that students face during this time. The University will make sure that any failed paper will not affect any students' G.P.A.
With all that is going on in the world and with AUT in particular, transparency has never been of more importance. With anxiety exuding from both students and staff do we feel that AUT is putting our minds at ease, or rather radiating a foggy transparency and still keeping us in the dark?