The Australian National University has pledged $1 million to support students affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, telling students to leave campus accommodation if they can relocate safely while also offering financial assistance.
The vice-chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, told students in an update on Friday afternoon outstanding campus accommodation contracts could be broken, rent paid in advance would be refunded and financial support was available for students looking to travel home and for other needs, including medical costs.
Professor Schmidt told the Sunday Canberra Times the university had been looking at "fairly major transformations" to make the disrupted learning environment easier on students.
In the update to students, he acknowledged there had been problems adhering to social distancing requirements within university accommodation, where facilities are often shared and meals are served in communal spaces.
"This must change: it is putting the health of members of our community at risk. So, from now, we need to create more space in our residences, and ensure students minimise their interactions," Professor Schmidt said.
"Those of you who cannot leave, due to travel restrictions, for example, can stay in your room. The residential halls and colleges will remain open for any resident who needs to live on campus. However we will be strictly enforcing hygiene and social distancing protocols without exception. Any student in breach of these measures will be removed from their residential accommodation and subject to university disciplinary proceedings."
Financial assistance from the university could be used to cover accommodation, travel expenses, groceries, textbooks and IT equipment and medical costs.
It comes as the university moves to online learning from Monday with a campus-wide shutdown after the semester was paused for a week. An update on the second semester would be provided as soon as possible, Professor Schmidt said.
The university will also move its census date from March 31 to May 8, allowing students to withdraw from courses without financial penalty far later into the semester.
Professor Schmidt said the university was considering changes to grading for the semester and more details would be available soon.
The ANU Students' Association, which represents the university's undergraduate students, has been asked to consult on moving to an optional pass or fail method of grading coursework for the semester.
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Professor Schmidt said students would have a difficult time and the university would not make decisions that hurt their academic performance.
"I'm not going to paint it with rose-coloured glasses. This is not going to be an easy time. Things are not going to work. Many [students] have lost their casual jobs; it's going to be hard. The government has updated their benefits and things so hopefully that will help out a lot. But we will get through this and the university isn't going to do stupid things that punish them," he said.
He said the pandemic was an egalitarian crisis which had a global effect, but the university could work to limit the ongoing impact on student outcomes.
"We are going to be able to create, I hope and I expect with a high degree of certainty, a series of ways of getting through this which make sure everyone does get through it without too many major disadvantages," Professor Schmidt said.
"Whether or not you want to go and do a PhD at Harvard or you want to get a job after graduation, we're going to have things in place that help support. I'll make sure it happens more or less as you expect."
Professor Schmidt said the rapid transformation to online teaching would show what the limitations were with digital learning technology.
"I think it's going to allow us to be a better institution and it will allow us to use digital to its full capacity but I don't think it's a watershed moment where we say we're going to be fully digital in the future and no one needs to worry about campus. Quite the opposite, I think it will make it very clear what we can and cannot do digitally," he said.
Meanwhile, UniLodge is working to reduce occupation density accommodation at the University of Canberra. The cleaning program has also been increased and care packages have been provided to students.
The university's vice president, finance and infrastructure, Vicki Williams, said protocols had been kept up to date with government social distancing requirements.
"As some students vacate the premises to return to their homes across Australia, it has provided the opportunity to reallocate rooms to reduce multishare occupation for those having to stay on campus. Procedures are also in place to allow for isolation," Ms Williams said.
"We have implemented a system whereby residential students can order meals online that are delivered to their room. We continue to work with the team at UniLodge to ensure we can safely provide access to meals for the students and we are in regular contact to with students to check on their welfare."
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