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Covid-19: students want end to full university shutdowns

Students are currently studying online Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

Swiss students are calling for teaching to be possible again at universities, and for their concerns to be addressed when the government decides next week on continuing or easing current restrictions to control the pandemic.

This content was published on April 10, 2021 - 10:00

Universities went into shutdown in spring 2020 as part of measures to control the pandemic. They were able to reopen for lectures, under special hygiene requirements, for the autumn term only to be closed again in November when the second virus wave struck.

It is as yet unclear when people will be able to return to campus - this is up to the Swiss government - although there are calls for university teaching to resume.

“Teaching is totally online, so the important social and interactive components of studying have completely fallen by the wayside,” Swiss Student Union co-president Elischa Link told SWI swissinfo.ch.

“Many students are also under pressure because they rely on income from student jobs which have mostly disappeared [due to the pandemic]. So not only is their mental health suffering, but also their studies, because they cannot focus on their studies. There is also the latent accusation that students are benefitting from the pandemic in their exams – which is not only wrong but also affects their mood.” Link said in email comments.

On Thursday, the Swiss Student Union calledExternal link for more action from the government, cantons and universities to support students. Preventing students from dropping out due to the pandemic is key, the union says. “It’s today’s students who will have to deal with the long-term consequences of the pandemic,” said Link.

Government decision?

The government is expected to say if it will ease any of the current national pandemic restrictions on April 14.

“The Swiss Student Union is calling for students to be included in further easing measures. If it comes to an opening, there have to be solutions for universities and students,” Link said.

Among its 19 demands, the union would like to see a return to on-site teaching in parallel to online teaching. It is also calling for a national student hardship fund, with CHF5,000 ($5,400) available to every student if necessary. Currently students have to rely on their universities or local authorities for financial support.

Higher ed’s view

Luciana Vaccaro, rector of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, told Swiss public television RTSExternal link that she supported the students’ views. She said that “all measures” were useful for helping students who were “tired”. “We have to help them get through this, knowing that it’s about our future,” she said.

When asked by SWI swissinfo.ch about its views on the government’s upcoming decision, swissuniversities, the sector’s umbrella body, said that higher education institutions had to react according to the epidemiological situation. Student safety could be guaranteed through established and tested safety conceptsExternal link, said general secretary Martina Weiss via email.

Changing from remote to campus teaching did however need a bit of organisation, so from a planning point of view it would be better for both students and institutions to have only one change per semester, Weiss added. Cantons should be in charge of any mass testing, she said.

The organisation added in a statement that it supported students during the pandemicExternal link and had great understanding for their concerns.

Debate, analysis

The organisation already saidExternal link earlier this year that it supports a return to some on-site teaching if possible, for the sake of the students. “High quality education is not just limited to the transmitting of knowledge and methods, but also includes, first and foremost, the ability to analyse complex issues, argue in a nuanced way, network, and deal with other ideas and opinions in a respectful way,” it said.

Switzerland is not alone in shuttering its academic institutions. Universities in neighbouring France, Germany and Italy are also closed for in-person teaching.

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