Throughout the five-month planning process for the attempt at reopening campus in September 2020, UCD’s administration misled the community with faulty projections, rejected academic staff’s concerns, and prioritized a hypothetical “campus experience” over student wellbeing. 

The Planning Process

Preparations for the Autumn Trimester began in late Spring of 2020. Administration predicted in a Discussion Document that the “risk of [a] second wave related shutdown… [is] real but low”. Accordingly, they started to visualize what a socially distanced campus experience might look like under the government’s current Covid restrictions. 

Prospects were immediately grim. A study from Estates Services conducted at the beginning of the planning process estimated that under 2m social distance, Belfield could host a maximum of about 2,200 students. This is only about 13% of the University’s typical capacity of ~16,700 and posed a serious threat to the University’s reopening plans, which had already committed to providing as much on-campus time as possible. 

Tests of a hypothetical 2-meter distanced campus immediately failed. According to one email obtained during our investigation, a rough and generous estimate from the School of Economics suggested that their classes alone would take up a “considerable piece of the total available [rooms]” if 2m distancing was allowed, which Deputy President Rogers called “an interesting test of reality”. Nevertheless, planning for the Autumn trimester continued in spite of these projections. It also, apparently, took place in near-universal disagreement with the University’s academic community. 

Academics seemed to bristle at the idea of reintroducing the campus experience this early into the pandemic. Concerned for student and staff safety, and restricted in space, Schools initially scheduled far fewer classes in person than the University administration expected. Some schools had very little interest in on-campus classes at all. For example, even at this early stage, the School of English, Drama and Film planned for their undergraduate students to spend 85-90% of their learning online. 

This clash in priorities caused its first issues on June 18th, when administration, in their own words, “had to reject initial plans from some Schools and send them back for people to add more F2F teaching.” The frustration was echoed by Deputy President Rogers, who wrote:

“It is clear that different areas seem to be taking very different approaches that are not in line with the draft framework and the inconsistency of approach will significantly reduce overall capacity so this will need to be an iterative process. We have committed to delivering as much face to face activity across the week as we can to encourage students to come to campus.”

Administration had made expensive promises to the student community, and to the country as a whole. Rather than reevaluate their priorities in the face of staff pushback, admin doubled down.

Picking Guidelines by Convenience?

At this point, it was becoming increasingly clear that UCD could not operate in any kind of meaningful way under a 2-metre social distance. Well before any official indication was given by the government that higher education could oporate under reduced distancing, the University’s administration began to pivot to 1m distancing. 1-metre distancing would allow the campus to operate at ~34% capacity and would open up a number of rooms rendered useless under the stricter guidelines. 

Management gave schools just one week to completely reschedule their timetables under these new guidelines. This planning took place in spite of the Public Health Subcommittee’s previous understanding that “the reproduction rate of Covid-19 could be considerably impacted by a reduction to 1 meter”. 

On August 7th, the Irish Universities Association advised universities to follow 2-metre social distancing, with 1-metre distancing to be allowed under exceptional circumstances. UCD did not significantly revise its planning in light of this and continued to effectively use 1-metre distancing as the rule, rather than the exception. This is likely because UCD had no choice but to follow the plan to which they had committed: Rogers himself admitted on June 30th that “It will be difficult to pivot back from 1m to 2m from a wider timetabling perspective in any event.” 

Questions around the validity of UCD’s approach had to be settled by Simon Harris personally. It is not clear whether public health experts were consulted on this decision.  

The Announcement

On July 8th, Deputy President Rogers announced that “most undergraduate students will be in classrooms around 40-60% of the normal schedule, with most graduate students having between 75 and 100% of normal classroom time.” These “targets” were reiterated in national media by UCD’s representatives. 

There are a number of significant issues with this estimation. While revised 1m distancing timetables had been submitted by schools the day before this announcement was made, the first round of timetable analysis was not yet complete. In fact, according to the documents we obtained in an FOI request, it would be 12 more days before the Registrar received its first briefing from Estates Services on teaching space allocation. This is the data that would be most relevant to the amount of classroom time a student might have (as opposed to raw, unprocessed timetables). Considering that timetables were “not yet stable” as late as August 25th, which forced registration to be delayed, these numbers seem inherently unreliable. 

At the time of the July 8th announcement, when representatives from the Students Union asked Deputy President Rogers for clarification as to where these numbers specifically came from, his responses were reportedly vague and simply reiterated what was already shared in the general announcement. Furthermore, documents received in our sweeping FOI requests did not provide any basis for the projections released to students on the 8th. 

Therefore, based on the information available, we cannot identify where these specific percentage estimates came from. 

This announcement was followed by a revised estimate released on August 7th. According to these numbers, the new estimates were 30-70% on-campus time for undergraduates, and 20-86% for postgraduates. These new figures were taken directly from another timetable processing report issued on the 31st. Despite the fact that timetables would still be undergoing analysis until as late as September 15th, the University did not continue to revise these estimations after this announcement. This is likely because each successive report predicted a wider margin of campus time for the overall student body. It appears that some Schools were scheduled to have significant amounts of time on campus, and others would have recorded just a few hours at most. Therefore, it appears that projections given by University management were inherently unreliable because they failed to provide enough nuance as to what individual students could expect at critical points in the pre-registration process. 

This inconsistency in numbers (both those that were made public and those that were kept internal) was symptomatic of the severe disorganization and infighting that plagued UCD’s campus reopening efforts. One email giving an update on a number of Colleges suggested that, as late as September 24th, only 16% of the classes registered at that point were scheduled to take place at 1m social distance, with over half taking place at 2m, and a considerable portion online. This appears to be a consequence of individual Schools refusing to schedule as much on-campus class time as administration expected.  

We have also received numerous reports that a frustrated President Deeks scolded staff at a Heads of School forum for not scheduling what he saw as enough time on-campus. This meeting reportedly took place just two days before UCD was forced back into online learning by the campus’s “temporary” move to Level 4 restrictions. 

Resistance to the administration’s efforts to reintroduce campus learning was not entirely internal. Speaking confidentially to the College Tribune, academic sources warned students as early as July that the figures provided by administration were exaggerations. 

In summary: 

  1. Administration gave the infamous “40-60%” and “75-100%” estimations by drawing on faulty data that they should have known was unreliable and inapplicable to the general university population. 
  2. Throughout the planning process, administration had to strong-arm Schools into scheduling more class time on campus. In what they must have seen as a semi-organized effort to secure student and staff safety, many Schools appear to have refused to schedule the level of on-campus time sought by administration. 

This is the first of a two-part special report by the College Tribune Investigations Team. The second will assess why we believe some of these decisions were made, and what the University community can learn from both this specific story and from our experiences throughout the pandemic in general.

Jack McGee – Head of Investigations