Katja Petrovic: Like all crises, the Covid-19 pandemic acts as an eye-opener. What are the most serious problems facing students at the moment?
Olivier Ertzscheid: There’s a real urgency, and it’s good that the media has been talking about it now. However, the students have been suffering from financial problems that have nothing to do with COVID for more than six months now. In fact, they’ve been struggling to make ends meet for years, even before COVID. I’m not really sure that we can rank their current problems from the most to the least important. Let’s just say, for someone who’s between 18 and 25 years old, perhaps for them it’s to find their bearings during this time of crisis, like to have at least some human interaction albeit short. These kids are not asking that they be allowed to go to parties, to clubs or to bars. They just want to have at least some time to talk with their classmates in small groups, just to know each other a bit. At the moment, conducting online class during COVID is the only thing we have as a solution, but I think the first of their priorities is really to have some bit of social interaction. Next, is to have the means to buy food, to pay for lodging. But they usually don’t express these problems – not having food to eat or the money to pay rent – because it’s not easy for them to say this.
👉 The other articles in the series on youth in the Covid-19 era :
- Students and the pandemic: a generation sacrificed?
- Young people and Covid-19: how has the pandemic affected their mental health?
- Young people and Covid-19: villains or victims?
What impact does the situation have on your relationship with the students?
The crisis has changed our relationship with the students. We share things with each other that we never talked about before. In our university, we have approximately 150 undergraduate students, a team of professors, and 10 of them are permanent employees which is a privilege given the pandemic. We have to take into consideration the current circumstances without losing track of the university’s objectives. We are all aware that we cannot ask them to do the same tasks with the same expectations with regard to deadlines. It doesn’t mean that we have to change the curriculum, it simply means that we have to take into consideration the special circumstances that we’re all in. That we have to adjust our evaluation, for example. There are students who share with us some personal stuff, like those who have plans of putting up a non-profit grocery shop in the campus or participate in food distributions. When you bump into your students at noon lining up for food baskets right after seeing them in your 10am class, your relationship with them changes of course.
What is this non-profit grocery shop that you mentioned?
The idea is to launch a non-profit grocery shop in the campus starting next schoolyear. In fact, we’ve already started distributing food since January through collaboration with food banks, with the Restos au cœur, also with restaurant owners who offered to provide ready-to-eat meals for the students. It happened so quickly than we expected. Currently, it’s free; it’s not like a grocery shop where they offer you very low prices. The food distribution is done every Thursday. But yes, seeing your students distributing food or lining up for food, changes your dynamics with them indeed.
What are your experiences teaching online?
Each professor’s experience is different. For some, it’s very complicated to use these new tools. It also depends on the departments, and the levels. Let’s just say, the University of Nantes [West of France] did their best to provide us with the necessary tools. During the first lockdown [April 2020], everyone was lost because nobody was prepared for this pandemic, but tools were provided soon after. During the second lockdown [October 2020], the University bought Zoom licences for the teachers so that they could conduct classes without worrying about exceeding 45 minutes. We were given tutorials on how to use these ICT tools for those who felt lost. However, I must say, that many professors had to buy their own equipment like microphones because their computers did not provide good sound quality. Some of them spent a lot of money on equipment.
What about the students? We often hear about a “sacrificed generation”. Do you have the same feeling?
We receive feedback from students who say things like “I’m in this course, in this department, and we have professors who never showed up, whom we haven’t heard for six months”. There are a lot of people who have valid reasons for giving up, who feel that they can’t meet expectations. Some students told me that some of them had absolutely no contact with either their department or with some of their professors for more than a year now, just an email about the midterms telling them to send their work and that’s it, but they never had class. Sure, there are students who don’t do any work, for several reasons.
But if there are more than two-thirds of the professors who are temporary lecturers, we can’t really force them to do the job of a permanent professor especially if they are underpaid, who haven’t received their salaries for six months, and who live in deplorable conditions – it’s just not possible! It’s not even normal. The pandemic has once again revealed an underlying issue, such as departments lacking in staff where there is a huge deficit. Then there’s the students’ anxiety about the quality of their degrees, especially when they start joining the labour market. They worry about not getting an internship, and things like that.
However, there are some companies that help out, which are more accommodating to students but there aren’t many, and it doesn’t cover all fields or specialisations. As university professors and researchers, our first job, our first duty is to assure the students of their future despite the special circumstances we’re in. Sure, their grades at the end of the term might not be exactly the grades they expected if they had classes under normal circumstances. They have acquired knowledge, skills and they even were overcompensated. They learned to be more dynamic, to work collectively as a group, to help each other not only in their class but also in other batches.
What we’re trying to explain to them is that, yes, their worries are valid, but they shouldn’t put themselves down because they are not the generation that suffered from COVID. They are the generation who had to finish their studies under these special circumstances. What worries me the most is that they lose hope, that they give up. We’ve seen a lot of students who are about to give up or who have dropped out and will not come back. In this case, yes there is this aspect of being sacrificed.
Have you had a lot of dropouts?
This year, there have been no dropouts, but we have students who are completely lagging behind. We have “ghost students” who attend class but they’re like, they’re there but they’re not there. We see their names on Zoom but they don’t turn in their work, we don’t hear from them…As a professor, it’s difficult to see if they’re still attentive in class, or they’ve lost interest – it’s impossible to know. Despite all our efforts, greeting them with an enthusiastic “good morning”, it’s just hard because we don’t see their faces. It’s just impossible to do a great class, so the best thing we can do is to teach the best we can, however unsatisfying the results. We were very lucky last January when we were able to conduct onsite classes. At least we were able to take a break, the teachers and also the students, even though we had to wear masks to school. On Zoom, we all become Zoom-bies.
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