Vice-Chancellor on a year characterised by a pandemic – sees new opportunities in its wake

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Even before that, the University of Borås had begun to adapt to the new reality.

"We started to make considerations and formulate different scenario descriptions quite early, at the beginning of February," said Mats Tinnsten, Vice-Chancellor of the university. 

He spoke about the designations "level green" which means the normal operations, "level red" which means a total shutdown of operations, and "level yellow" which indicates a middle ground. 

"The best thing from the point of view of contagion would of course have been to completely shut down our operations, but then, for example, we would not have produced any new nurses needed in healthcare, and of course all professions need newly-educated workers. The difficult thing for us has been to find an optimal position in which we follow all the recommendations yet without stopping our operations entirely.”

On 13 March 2020, the University of Borås moved to “level yellow.”

"This meant that operations were still ongoing, but without physical lectures and meetings," said Mats Tinnsten.

Thanks to that decision, the university was not completely unprepared when the government announced on 17 March that all higher education activities would start being conducted digitally on 18 March. 

"Our staff were prepared, but only since a few days prior.”

Before 13 March, approximately 15 per cent of the educational offerings at the University of Borås had been offered in distance form.

"So 85% of our educational programmes would be re-organised in just a few days. It was such a limited amount of time and of course we were quite concerned," said Mats Tinnsten.

A huge change

The first few weeks after the change were also suboptimal.

"I received some emails from students who were angry, sad, and disappointed.”  

The transition presented both technical and educational challenges. 

"This was a huge transition in several ways. But our staff did a fantastic job and soon the angry emails stopped coming," said Mats Tinnsten, whose focus has been on facilitating staff work.

"I think I was the first among the Vice-Chancellors of the universities in Sweden to decide that we should have a digital Reception of new students for the autumn term. I wanted to give our staff information early on so that they would have time to plan," he said.

"We have been receiving new students into their educational programmes in person for over 40 years. Now we would do something that no one has done before in this sector – receive them digitally.” 

It was a challenge – but it succeeded. Like much else that was previously imagined to be impossible.

"If I had said in January that 50% of our educational programmes would become digital a few months later, everyone would have said that would be impossible. Now almost 100% of our educational programmes are conducted digitally and it works relatively well.”

I've never made so many decisions in such a short time.

During 2020, new information and restrictions from the government and the Public Health Agency of Sweden were updated frequently and that was a challenge for the university.

"I've never made so many decisions in such a short time. In advance of making these decision, I have of course taken advice from the Student Union, staff representatives, senior managers, and expert authorities. But in a situation where no one has the answers, I have had no clear idea what was right and wrong," said Mats Tinnsten.

It has been an intense year for him, as Vice-Chancellor, to say the least, but he believes that the uncertainty has in the end been manageable and has not made him stressed.

"I like having lots of things going on and, of course, I have had incredibly good support from the university staff.” 

More efficient meetings

Social distancing has led to students missing out on much of the student social life that higher education is usually associated with and it can be lonely for staff to work from home. But support is available for those who are having a difficult time, and overall, Mats Tinnsten thinks that the digital transition has worked well – and brought with it several advantages.

For example, he believes that Zoom meetings are more effective than physical ones.

"You have time for more things at a meeting, more people can have the opportunity to speak, and together you can solve shared problems.”

In addition, distance learning and working from home make it easier for both students and staff when it comes to work-life balance. 

"We will take that with us after the pandemic. We will find a form of work that will make it easier for our staff to have a higher quality of life. And distance learning gives more people the opportunity to pursue studies. And simultaneously, the environment is benefitted when we travel less,” said Mats Tinnsten. 

He continued, "What I think we need going forward, in our new normal, is a mix of these forms, the physical and the digital.” 

Mats Tinnsten spoke about the “new normal” because returning to doing things exactly as in the past is not an option. The world of higher education has changed forever and the positive thing that has come out of the pandemic is, above all, a digital leap forward, as in this area there has been such strong development in a very short time.

Examination forms reviewed

Restrictions have meant that the university has, among other things, had to make decisions about different forms of examination than traditional written exams held on campus. 

"It is a very important element moving forward, because there we also have a quality-enhancing effect, I think. Memorised facts are worth less than deep understanding, but given that, it is necessary that the examination forms be reviewed.”

He believes that the pandemic has been a difficult time that has challenged the organisation, but he definitely does not regard 2020 as a wasted year.

"I'd rather see it as having done a lot of new things, and a lot of it we will benefit from in the future. We should keep that which has improved," said Mats Tinnsten.

The pandemic is not over; how do you see the future?

"Last year at this time, I thought this would be over by the summer. Now we are sitting here a year later wondering if this will be over by the summer of 2021. No one has any answers, but we have to make the best of the situation.” 

What are the most important lessons learned during the course of the pandemic?

"Many people have seen that when faced with seemingly impossible tasks, we are very good at handling them. Our staff have done a fantastic job. They didn't give up, but rolled up their sleeves and found solutions to problems. The pandemic has shown that not much is impossible.”

A selection of news articles from over the course of the pandemic

March 2020: Yellow level due to the coronavirus

March 2020: Two students infected—have not been on campus

March 2020: Instruction is changing form–as far as possible

April 2020: The university's first public thesis defence via video link

October 2020: Stricter general guidelines

October 2020: Academic Ceremony moved to 2022

November 2020: The university remains at “lime level”

December 2020: This is how the university is handling the pandemic at this time

December 2020: Level yellow activated — everything is to be done remotely