(Anti)Social Distancing at the Universities

The start of the winter semester places Vienna’s students – including thousands of freshmen – firmly under the shadow of the pandemic.

A “normal start“– that’s what Austrian Minister of Education Heinz Faßmann predicted for the upcoming semester. And while the country’s universities are trying their best to meet that goal for their official opening today, October 1st, studying in 2020 will be very different from last year: No lively get-togethers, no lectures in packed auditoriums, none of the rambunctious student parties fueled by booze, gossip, and new friendships.

Perhaps not quite what Faßmann had in mind, it’s a lot better than the spring lockdown, which saw all lectures, seminars and exams go online. For winter 2020/21, Austrian universities will take a mixed approach, combining both face-to-face and online classes. “We will start the winter term with limited on-site operation,” says Cornelia Blum, head of corporate communications at University of Vienna, which welcomed almost 17,000 first-year students in Fall 2019. “This year, we will operate at 50% room capacity, adhering to all distance and hygiene regulations. In addition, we will offer digital services,“ Blum elaborates.

This solution stems from a guideline published by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Researchin mid-August. However, the final decision lies with the individual institutions, and most universities grant freshmen priority for face-to-face lectures. “The university start is all about getting to know tutors, fellow students, the university buildings. This facilitates the students’ start. And we know that the start is crucial for the further course of the studies,“ says Blum.

The Vienna Technical University is following a similar approach:“It would be fatal to bring high-school graduates from homeschooling to home-learning at universities,“said president Sabine Seidler in an interview with the Austrian daily Kurier. Beginners should be allowed to “smell university, taste it, feel it.”

When available, larger facilities also help: the Vienna University of Economics and Business held several mid-September introductory classes at the Austria Center, the country’s largest convention center, allowing them to seat over a thousand freshmen without violating the safety distance. They have also implemented a novel on-site testing scheme, delivering results within 15 minutes. 

Home-School Blues

While Blum concedes that the adjustment to digital classes has been enormously challenging for students and faculty, the previous term was successful in spite of it all, she says, with overall test performance actually slightly surpassing (1%) the previous year. “In a normal year, no one would talk about one percent,” she notes. “However, under the circumstances…” 

Even so, many are concerned about the negative effects of online learning: Several degree programs invited students to take part in an on-going evaluation of their academic experience. A recent survey of 2,350 German studentsshowed that nearly two thirds considered the prospect of another semester of home-learning “bad” or “very bad.” A vast majority reported missing the personal interaction. 

Outside of class rooms, socializing is a crucial part of student life – even more so for newcomers and exchange students. With many typical meeting places like clubs and bars still closed and regulations constantly changing, organizing mixers requires flexibility and persistence. However, Tamara Bachmann, president of the Erasmus Student Network at University of Vienna, is convinced it’s worth it: Even now, their welcome week program is drawing over 200 international students, and her staff of volunteers are happy to go the extra mile to make it work. “Compared to last term, where we had to cancel everything, things work rather normally at the moment,“ Bachmann states. “We do have constraints, of course. All our events have to be outdoors. And it’s more work for our team, because we often have to assign time-slots and offer events repeatedly.” 

On top of challenging circumstances and social restrictions, the pandemic has also induced financial pressure. Several student associations even demanded a refund of last terms’ tuition fees– both to alleviate financial strain and reimburse students for a semester of cancelled lectures and services. So far, the federal ministry has rejected their claim.

The pressure can be even higher for non-EU citizens: Ramiro Wong, a Peruvian-born student at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, has been on hunger strike since Sept. 16 to raise awareness of the precarious situation many international students face: With many typical student jobs in the event- or service industry currently unavailable, Wong can no longer afford his tuition; but dropping out would mean losing his student visa and eventually, deportation – which is not even possible in some cases due to travel restrictions. 

This year, it seems, is far from normal. 

Verena Mayer
After falling in love with the city on an Interrail trip over 10 years ago, Verena is finally living in Vienna. She’s an editorial intern at Metropole and about to finish her master's degree in journalism at Deutsche Journalistenschule in Munich. Her favorite topics include food, culture & people.

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