INTERVIEW: Dundalk IT president on Covid-19 impact and what future holds for institute
The unprecedented nature of the impact of Covid-19 has been felt right across society, and local students have been no exception.
With many asking questions about what will happen before the end of term, the Democrat spoke to Dr Michael Mulvey, President of DkIT, about how the institute is dealing with the closure and what the future holds for the institute's current and prospective students.
David Lynch: Can you describe how difficult the last number of weeks have been at DkIT?
Dr Mulvey: Like all higher education institutes across Ireland and abroad, DkIT has faced unprecedented challenges over recent weeks due to the Covid-19 health emergency.
From the outset, our number one priority has always been ensuring the health and wellbeing of our students and staff. On March 12, 2020 we took the extraordinary decision to close our campus in line with guidance issued by the Government. Preparations immediately began to develop new ways of delivering teaching and learning and continuing our organisational operations through remote or digital means.
As an institute we are highly resilient and are fortunate to have a highly talented workforce that has been able to pull together to navigate this emergency in the interest of our students and our region.
DL: What planning have you been able to put in place for the future?
DM: At the beginning of this emergency, the institute established a Covid-19 TaskForce which comprises managers from across all areas of the institute to oversee our response to the Covid-19 emergency. The taskforce meets regularly and is able to swiftly respond to the evolving situation, making decisions in an efficient and informed manner.
During the initial weeks of campus closure, our focus centred on ensuring the academic continuity of all programmes including the move to remote delivery of all teaching modules, developing alternative assessments for students and ensuring that staff and students had the tools and resources they needed to continue their work.
In line with the Government’s most recent announcement, we can confirm that the campus remains closed to students and staff until May 5. We are aware that there is a possibility that this closure could be extended and contingency plans have been established to ensure that all students can complete this academic semester without disruption through remote means, if this is required. We continue to carefully monitor this situation and further updates will be provided as necessary.
DL: Do you have a message to prospective students?
DM: As we look forward to the next academic year, we want to provide reassurance to prospective students that we are committed to assisting their smooth transition to becoming DkIT students at undergraduate, part-time or postgraduate level.
In light of recent announcements in relation to state examinations, it is likely that there will be changes to admissions schedules and we continue to work closely with the Central Applications Office to ensure we are working in line with all adjustments.
Our unique location on the border means we continue to receive a significant number of applications from prospective students in Northern Ireland, as well as the Republic of Ireland. We remain committed to ensuring that applicants will continue to have equal access to quality higher education from all jurisdictions. Our international office have also been actively engaged with applicants from abroad and are supporting them throughout this period of uncertainty.
In order to support prospective students at this time, we have organised a number of Virtual Open Days to answer any questions about admissions procedures or DkIT courses that they have at this time. The first of these events take place on the 21st April and 6th May for undergraduate applicants and registration is available via: https://virtualopenday.dkit.ie/. Over the coming weeks, we will be announcing further virtual events for mature applicants, part-time, postgraduate and international applicants.
DL: How have the staff responded to the situation?
DM: The innovation and ingenuity exhibited by our staff in response to this challenge has been truly remarkable. Within just one week, we were able to resume classes via remote delivery thanks to the swift efforts by personnel across the institute. Our research centres, staff and postgraduate students continue to remain active by working remotely and all functional areas developed contingency plans to ensure that essential services were uninterrupted (where possible) during this time.
DL: Can you describe the feeling of being in an empty institute right now?
DM: These are undoubtedly strange and uncertain times for us all and witnessing our campus without students at this time of the year is certainly a stark reminder of that fact.
However, the health and wellbeing of our students and staff remains our utmost priority. We know that it is vital that we all maintain our social distancing by staying at home and continue to adhere to Government guidelines to help reduce the pressure on our critical health services and to flatten the curve of this pandemic. This is a message that we continually convey to our students and staff and they understand this.
I am comforted that we are able to provide some support to the national effort by redeploying parts of our campus to support the HSE’s regional testing operation and provide facilities for training purposes. We have also been able to offer up our buildings for use by the An Garda Síochána.
I am also immensely proud of our fourth year nursing and midwifery students who are working at the frontline of this pandemic as they complete as part of their final clinical internship. They are joined by thousands of our former graduates from a variety of programmes that we know are also playing a critical role as frontline workers. We are grateful for their vital contribution to their community at this time.
DL: What would you like to say to current students?
DM: We are acutely aware that our students have been deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and I would personally like to thank each of them for their patience and cooperation throughout this period of adjustment. We remain committed to ensuring that no DkIT student faces any form of academic disadvantage as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Our academic teams have been working closely with our Centre of Learning & Teaching (CELT), Academic Affairs and Students Union to ensure that decision-making around assessments is fair and student-centred while also preserving the academic integrity of results awarded. Considerations around mode of assessment, academic integrity, quality, fairness to our students, additional support for students with a disability and compliance with regulatory bodies have all been reviewed.
In an effort to reassure students during this rapidly evolving situation, we have increased our communications by developing an online information portal for students relating to Covid-19 developments, in addition to a weekly newsletter with updates on student issues, institute news and the latest guidance from the Government and the HSE.
In early April, we also conducted an institute-wide student survey to identify areas where we can improve support for our students at this time and gather their feedback on the current arrangements. Critical student services such as counselling, pastoral care, student finance and careers guidance remain in high demand by our students via remote delivery.
We also recognise that this an unsettling period for our international students as they remain separated from their families and friends at home. In addition to continuing pastoral care services, our International office has been contacting each student individually each week to assess their individual needs and offer additional supports. The families of these students have been most appreciative of this added-level of care.
DL: From a personal point of view, can you see the current academic year being completed successfully?
DM: All plans that have been prioritised to date have been established to ensure that DkIT students can progress to their next academic year or enable graduation as appropriate.
DL: Have the department of education been giving clear and timely information?
DM: The Government is dealing with an unprecedented national emergency, the impact of which is all-encompassing for us as a society and deeply complex.
I believe the Department of Education & Skills continues to provide clear and timely information as this situation evolves and we continue to work closely with the Department and our associative body, THEA to prioritise the welfare of our students and staff whilst also maintaining the quality of our teaching & learning, research and business impact.
There is undoubtedly a lot of uncertainty for the future as developments continue to unfold but I am confident that we can rise to this challenge both as an institute and as a nation with the support of our Government agencies.
DL: What does this situation mean for the pressing Technological University question?
DM: Over the coming weeks, we will officially launch our new Strategic Plan 2020-22 which clearly articulates our ambition to become a Technology University in the near future. We are currently evaluating options for our most suitable partners from within the sector and discussions continue with colleagues in the institute and across the sector in this regard. We look forward to making an announcement on this in due course.