Why he wants to return to face-to-face teaching as quickly as possible, what that means for the vaccination campaign, and why universities not only demand from politicians but also have to be more courageous themselves: an interview with Frankfurt University President Enrico Schleiff.
Mr. Schleiff, will the winter semester at Goethe University be normal again after vaccination?
It will certainly not be a normal semester yet. The crucial question for me is different: What will be normal after Corona? Is vaccination compulsory?
At the beginning of May, you announced an extensive return to face-to-face teaching by the executive committee’s decision. “We want to send a positive signal to the students,” you said. “A message of optimism.” Is that optimism still there?
That’s him. Our calculations show that Germany can achieve herd immunity by autumn even if the number of daily first vaccinations should decrease over the summer. Of course, we don’t have a crystal ball either. Whether or not some mutant appears, the vaccines do not cover that. But despite such uncertainties: The students have a right to find out at an early stage what will happen next. Many are at home with their parents, some of them abroad. Now you have to plan where you will spend the winter semester. We can’t hold out much longer. As universities, we have to dare to make a decision.
Aren’t you leaning a long way out of the window?
I hope politics won’t let us down. I am worried if the large vaccination centers will close now and shift to general practitioners. Many young adults were last ill during puberty when they often went to the pediatrician. Since then, they usually haven’t had a reason to seek a family doctor, so they don’t have one. In this respect: If we don’t want to have problems with vaccination among the 21 to 25-year-olds, the federal and state governments must now say how we can offer this age group vaccinations as soon as possible.
Aren’t they already doing that? I mean vaccination!
For example, Bavaria’s Minister of Science, Bernd Sibler (CSU), has just announced that “students in Bavaria, we are going to include them in the Bavarian vaccination strategy with targeted vaccination campaigns.”
Baden-Württemberg starts a vaccination model project for students in Stuttgart. And the Rhineland-Palatinate state government wants to vaccinate 30,000 doses of vaccines to young adults in the second week of July, mainly at six university locations.
It means you have named three out of 16 federal states. Exemplary.
And I agree with you. Fortunately, something is moving. But that’s precise because we as universities apply pressure. For too long, the main discussion was about schools or older people, which was correct at the time. However, it was largely ignoring that universities are also places where almost three million young people come together and should come together.
Because the university rectors had failed to lobby?
I cannot completely take our responsibility out of this. But it is also a fact that there have been warnings from the universities for months not to forget them. But it is also a fact that there are very different positions in the University Rectors’ Conference on when the time has come to return to face-to-face studies. Some say: let’s open up as much as possible, and I count myself among them. Others fear, however, that this is too early and still too dangerous.
“We need a high vaccination rate. Everything else is then a question of effective hygiene concepts.”
Maybe for a good reason? What if only some of the students get the vaccination by the winter semester? Is there then normality for some and further distance theory for others?
Our goal of extensive presence never depended on all students gets vaccination in the fall. That would be an illusion. Some people do not want to be vaccinated; others cannot get a vaccination for health reasons. But we need a high quota, and that is, as I said, realistic. Everything else is then a question of effective hygiene concepts. Every classroom course will still need such a concept. But that’s not magic. Whether mask compulsory, room occupancy, or ventilation: after a year and a half, our occupational physician’s training is given to say precisely what is necessary for which scenario.
The universities should therefore be able to decide for themselves what is possible and what is not?
It is our contribution. We cannot always make demands on politicians. We also have to do something ourselves. That means: we as universities have to be more courageous but not cocky. And to be more specific: We want to have the freedom to return to university life, and in return, we will handle these freedoms very responsibly. At the Goethe University, we constantly exchange our experiences internally and other universities and discuss various models. And we are successful with it: For example, we conducted the exams in the summer semester largely face-to-face and did not have a single chain of infection from the university.
That is not yet specific enough for me. Are you in favor of abolishing the general distance rule in universities?
We should admit that we know what we can and cannot do. We also need this freedom from the legislature. If we confront laws and ordinances on minimum distances and the like, the return to more presence will not succeed because we would only use our rooms to ten or 20 percent across the board. However, such blanket requirements are not appropriate. In the end, the responsibility rests with me as the university president and the presidential team. I am ready to take on this responsibility. And so are many of my colleagues at other universities. We have an obligation to our students to enable them to have a holistic university education again.
“They came out of online school lessons
and went straight to digital studies.”
What would another distance semester mean for the students?
The standard master’s degree lasts four semesters. We are now in the third distance semester. One more thing, and there will be graduates who have never seen the inside of our university. Or think of those just starting their bachelor’s degree, who never really made it to their studies in their second year of study. They came from online school lessons and went straight to digital studies. What does this mean for young people who have no support at home from parents who have studied themselves? How are they supposed to learn to unfold themselves there?
Is self-development only possible in presence?
At the very least, students who are not present miss out on essential elements of academic learning. By that, I mean direct exchange, networking, and especially the chance interdisciplinary encounters when students from different disciplines meet in the cafeteria. I’m talking about lost experiences and the emotional burden of sitting alone with my parents or in the student apartment and feeling the pressure to deal with the situation somehow. All of this also meets the self-aspiration of many students to start their adult life. And become financially more independent from their parents or BAföG. But there are also no student jobs.
If you advocate face-to-face study so much, aren’t you taking the pressure off politicians to ensure that universities are properly digitally equipped?
We should be careful not to play one off against the other. It is correct that universities are, on the one hand, beacons of digitization when it comes to the development of new learning technologies or didactic concepts. On the other hand, the technical equipment of many buildings is not much better than that of the schools, and not even fast WLAN is a matter of course everywhere. Not to mention sensible data management systems or the infrastructure for the digital provision of research data – keyword is open science. The German Rectors’ Conference proposes: We urgently need a financial package for digitization, including a flat-rate digitization fee.
Will there still be the mass lecture after Corona?
At the very least, it will be the teaching format that is used to the greatest test, and rightly so. For years it has been crystal clear that the digital communication of pure knowledge can work much better if it cleverly prepares. At the same time, there is the freedom to discuss what we learn in smaller groups on-site and think further. Corona forces us to rethink this anyway. Let’s take the opportunity.
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