The University is “considering a range of options” to reopen libraries and learning spaces for Masters students as they write their dissertations over the summer.

All library sites have been closed since 9.00am on Wednesday 18 March, leaving some Masters students without access to libraries or learning spaces for over half of their course. 

A spokesperson for the University of Sheffield told Forge Press: “We understand that the coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to the lives of our students and we want to thank you all for the patience and co-operation you have shown whilst we moved our teaching online and continue to respond to a rapidly changing situation.

“The decision to move all teaching online from 16 March 2020 was made to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our students and staff, while at the same time enabling students to achieve their learning outcomes and to have as little disruption as possible to their education.

“As we expect social distancing measures to be in place for several months, we are considering a range of options for our libraries and learning spaces as part of the wider recovery planning work. Our priority is to ensure that the campus is safe for students and staff and we are continuing to monitor government guidelines and adapt as a University.

“While our library buildings are closed, our digital library is open for business as usual. The service has close to a million ebooks and over 60,000 journal titles along with a virtual library team and specialist librarians ready to support you.

“If any student has difficulty in finding a book they need then we urge them to contact the virtual library team for assistance. If the library doesn’t have access to the title you need, the team will try to find it for you. Subject to availability, the library service can order an e-book for you and let you know when it is available, or suggest an alternative. If there are materials that are not on your resource list, but you may find them useful for a dissertation, thesis or project, then you can also suggest materials for the library to add.”

The University did not respond to a question regarding whether they felt justified in charging Masters students, some of whom are paying over £20,000, the full course fees for delivering just six months of face-to-face teaching, littered with strikes.

They also did not respond to a question regarding whether Masters students’ grades would suffer for submitting a dissertation which had suffered from a lack of library access.

Some departments have already taken action to ensure grades are “fair, equitable and inclusive,” though there is no University-wide strategy. The Department of History has asked their Masters students to write a statement alongside their dissertation detailing how the pandemic has affected their work, for example. 

Despite this, some students have been left concerned that their work will suffer disproportionately.

One such History student told Forge Press: “As a history student the library and its many resources are very important to my work, making the closing of the libraries particularly stressful. 

“It is helpful to know that the online library is there for support, however I am still concerned that without certain resources that cannot be attained, my work will be significantly affected. 

“I hope that our department will take this into account when marking our work and realise that the balance and originality our degree is based on will be compromised.”

Henry Lock, a Masters student in the Department of Geography said: “I appreciate that the University cannot take the decision to reopen the libraries, however I would like to query whether a system could be set up so that students can request and pick up selected books. 

“This would be a massive help to myself and many other masters students who find themselves unable to access academic literature at a time when we are writing our dissertations. 

“Whilst the online resources are helpful, I know from past experience that my work has benefited significantly from physical books. It would be a shame if my magnum opus could not benefit from the libraries’ fantastic selection.”

Education Officer Charlie Porter said he would support a “request-only service” when he feels it is safe to do so.

“I support the University’s position of protecting the health and safety of staff and students as a priority,” he told Forge Press.  

“At the same time, I recognise that many students, particularly those on PG programmes with work to complete over summer, are keen to get access to libraries and a request-only service is one way of doing this. 

“This is something that I’d only feel comfortable supporting if it could be guaranteed to be safe, which I’m not sure it can at this moment in time as it would require library staff to go to work, possibly on public transport, and also encourage students on to campus whilst the lockdown is still ongoing. 

“I have been working to ensure that the University takes into consideration the lack of library access and the negative effects this can have on students’ work and implements mitigating strategies when it comes to marking.”

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