Earning a Master’s in a global pandemic.

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

While the Covid-19 pandemic affected all levels of education, the structure and curriculum of Masters education is very different to most undergraduate programmes. Nathan Young examines how well UCD supported these students.

When UCD first locked-down in March, many major questions were hanging over the minds of students and staff. Some worried about their own or their families safety. Others were concerned about what shape Summer exams would take, and a tiny minority even pondered the Students’ Union elections. For Masters’ students, however, the academic questions were amplified. Exams they might not have, but access to laboratories, historical archives, and workplaces for placement were snatched away along with so much else during Quarantine, leaving the structure of their course decimated.

We were meant to have 12 hours in the labs [per week] and that was just completely shut down...so our [transcripts] say that we don’t have any lab experience.

Speaking to The University Observer, one student who was studying an MSc in UCD until the end of their summer trimester explained the importance of lab work for themselves and their classmates; “People needed it for jobs, like if you have lab experience. We were meant to have 12 hours in the labs [per week] and that was just completely shut down...so our [transcripts] say that we don’t have any lab experience”. Some of her classmates complained about this issue, seeing if they could “Come in and do them at a later stage, or even just have a few classes to show that we have it [lab experience]”. Neither the student’s school nor UCD has offered to rectify this situation. 

We’re not paying for a degree. We’re paying for an opportunity to earn a degree

This student, and people in their situation, have been vocal about the topic of fees compensation. Another Masters student pointed out that masters students “can spend 14,000 to 50,000 euro for access to all the UCD resources and end up spending two-thirds of the degree on their laptop in their bedroom”, adding “I didn’t get the quality of the degree that I paid for, nor the experience that was meant to come with it”. It was also highlighted that “UCD claims you are paying for a degree, but we’re not paying for a degree. We’re paying for an opportunity to earn a degree. A paying student who fails their exams won’t get the degree, so we’re not paying for a degree”. These views are widespread among master’s students, both because they pay so much more for their education, but also because they feel the lack of opportunities this year in labs and on placement will genuinely disadvantage them in the jobs market. It’s no surprise that the Students for Fees compensation has been led largely by Smurfit students and that two of the three candidates for UCDSU Graduate Officer were running on fee compensation platforms.

While many of the same issues facing all students also impacted Master’s students, in some cases the change from in-person to online was quite significant. One student, who had been having 20 hours a week of face-to-face learning, said: “all our classes were just pre-recorded slideshows, and some of them weren’t even relevant to the topic, so there were 24 slide shows put up and only about six of them were relevant”. Masters’ students whose field trips were cancelled instead got to visit the tourist websites for geologically or historically interesting places to study in Ireland. One student told The University Observer that while their course arranged Zoom calls to organise group projects, “there were no live [classes], everything just got put up [on Brightspace]...So one of our classes had three different lecturers who would take a segment each. It was once a week so for four weeks we got one pre-recorded slide show and maybe the readings”.

UCDSU Graduate Officer Carla Gummerson agreed. When asked by The University Observer if postgraduate courses moving wholly online was common, she replied “Yes. That was a common theme...I've had a couple of students come forward with serious complaints actually about Masters courses where the lecturer wasn’t putting them up anyway...so when [all courses] went online, that didn’t change the fact that they weren't putting it up on Brightspace anyway”.

None of this is to suggest that all lecturers left all master’s students out to dry. Many Course-Coordinators and individual academics rose to the challenge in the eyes of their students. What the variety of responses from different schools implies, however, is the lack of structural support from UCD for Master’s students. One student affected told The University Observer “There were inconsistencies, it seemed to be the individual strategy of the lecturer so there was no uniformity by the university or the school, [and] a lack of instruction for lecturers...Some lecturers decided to make PowerPoint presentations and speak over the presentations, and you had to go and listen to audio and look at the slides yourself without any actual interaction with your lecturer or your classmates”. Gummerson agrees. When asked what she thinks UCD did for Master’s students specifically she said “I don’t think very much. I really don’t think very much. Like I’ve repeatedly said, I think they’ve been forgotten about. We come to boards et cetera, and we bring these things forward [to] be taken on board...whether action is taken on certain things remains to be seen”. She went on to note that not all schools lacked support for their students, “from a University perspective it was kind of ‘you’re left to your own devices, do your thesis’ and there you go”.

The University Observer contacted both UCD communications and UCD President Andrew Deeks for comment, and for information on what resources and guidance were offered to schools to support Master’s students and to offer them a chance to respond to Gummerson’s claims regarding the lack of support. They did not respond.

For Post-graduate students seeking SU representation, Carla Gummerson is reachable at carla.gummerson@ucdsu.ie