#PHEresponse to COVID-19 | Interview with Dr. Jon Altuna Iraola, Academic Vice-Rector of Mondragon University in the Basque Country

Spain has been one of the most affected countries in Europe by the COVID-19 outbreak. Together with Dr. Altuna Iraola, Academic Vice-Rector of our member Mondragon University from the Basque Country, we discussed the impact of the lockdown on the different aspects of academic life and the University’s response to the challenge raised by the pandemic.

1. What is the current situation in your country and which measures were adopted by the government to stop the spread of COVID-19?

The situation is changing every now and then, but Spain is in a “State of alarm” from 14 March 2020. The Basque government, together with the Spanish government, initially closed all schools and universities and approved social distancing measures, which were quite strict compared to other countries. There is no possibility, for instance, to go out and do physical exercise, and for a couple of weeks all non-essential economic activity was prohibited.

2. Did Mondragon University take any precautionary measures before the government’s announcement of the lockdown?

There was no sign of the dimension of the outbreak in Spain until the end of February, but once it started, we knew it was just a matter of weeks for the virus to reach us too. For us, it was very important to coordinate our actions with the Basque Government and other universities in the region. Also, we have always waited for the health authorities to give us instructions on what had to be done to ensure the safety of our students and staff.

3. What is the general mood of your staff and students at the moment?

In the beginning, there was a very positive mood, both among students and among our staff. We knew that we had to overcome this situation and that we had to adapt ourselves to it very quickly. Then, during the following weeks, you could feel that the mood was getting tenser. The learning process was very intense and the students were feeling like they wanted to go back to face-to-face education, because they were missing the personal contact with their peers and partners. I think that the Easter holidays have been really good for them to take a breath and try to cope with what was coming up.

Meanwhile, jointly with the other Basque universities and the Basque Government, we decided to finish this academic year in remote learning.

4. You introduced the topic of remote learning, let’s dive into it deeper. How did the switch to online learning go? Do you have any good practices to share with our members?

Some of our faculties were experienced in remote learning, with 25% of their activities already taking place online, but some of them have never done that. To ensure a smooth switch to online learning, we decided to combine synchronous and asynchronous instructions in each course. Also, every morning a meeting is organised between the students and a tutor, who helps them make a recap of the schedule of the week and checks how they are doing. I believe this system works very well.

5. What about students’ assessments?

Assessments are probably a big issue for many universities, but for us it was a quite natural process. We already had in place a continuous assessment system and we don’t have to rely only on final exams. We already had many evidences on the students’ learning process and what we are doing now is just continuing to capture this variety of assessments. I believe people forget that the learning process it’s not only about summative assessment or marking, but it’s also about formative assessment. However, since the learning and teaching methodologies have been adapted to remote learning, this necessarily requires assessments also to be adapted to this new scenario.  

6. Mondragon University has a strong commitment to applied research jointly with the world of work. Has this been interrupted by the current situation?

Most research projects that we already had in place haven’t been affected that much. Our Ph.D. students were able to maintain parts of their research activities from home, even though some of them haven’t been able to carry out lab experiments or conduct research with equipment while strict confinement measures are in place. The transfer of knowledge with companies has been affected because companies had to stop all their activities, including the ones in collaboration with our university. In the next months, we will also probably see a bigger impact on the work of Ph.D. students with industry.

7. You talked about Mondragon University’s special relationship with the world of work and I know that you collaborate with more than 250 companies and institutions that offer students practical trainings. How are you dealing with placements? Are students able to continue?

Our policy on placements has been focused on establishing a conversation with the companies and on determining in which placements conditions were met so that the students could continue their work. We haven’t adopted a general rule, because we faced a different variety of situations. Some companies have decided that the students could continue their placements in remote mode from their houses. In other cases, like placements in secondary and vocational training schools, they had to be suspended. However, some of our students in this field have found creative ways to reshape and refocus their placements, offering, for example, their support to schools in the transition from face-to-face to online learning.

We expect that a high percentage of work-based learning activities might be recovered by the end of May. An important number of them will continue in remote mode and others will take place physically in the workplace if the necessary health and security conditions are met. For us, being a cooperative university strongly tied to the world of work, it is important to listen to the companies and organisations we work with, rather than take the decisions unilaterally.

8. Are you aware of any social problems that students may face? I.e. online learning could be a challenge to socially underprivileged groups.

All our students have a laptop – this has been a policy at our university. For those students who were not able to purchase one, we already had a financial support scheme that allows them to do so. Our faculties have also created online platforms where our students and staff could easily solve the issues related to e-learning together with our IT experts. Also, we have opened a university Open EdX platform, where trainings on synchronous e-learning, online assessments and so on, are available.

What we noticed is that there is an increasing problem related to many students’ families that are temporarily unemployed and unable to pay the fees. Since we already had in place a financial scheme to support families in financial difficulties, we decided to reshape it and adapt it to the current situation.

9. Has there been any engagement of the university and its students in supporting the local community? What do you think could be the role of Mondragon University in helping to overcome the crisis?

At the very beginning of the crisis, there was a call from the local governments inviting young people to volunteer for the civil service and we promoted this initiative among our students. The 3D printing facilities of our Faculty of Engineering are also producing quite an important number of face masks, which are delivered to local hospitals and supermarkets.

As for what might be the role of Mondragon University in overcoming this crisis, our first commitment is to send a reassuring message and invite our students and staff to follow the security measures, as much as we can. We need to be an example to society and we need to commit our students to engage much more with their community.

10. What do you think it’s the impact that the Coronavirus crisis will have on professional higher education?

We work closely with many businesses and companies that were strongly affected by the crisis and were forced to suspend their activities. For this reason, the impact of this crisis might be harder on professional higher education than on conventional research-based education. Managing the vast amount of students in placements and their different situations is also something that research-based universities don’t need to handle that much. Our activities are strongly oriented towards businesses and companies and they inevitably suffer when the economy is suffering. So I believe that the impact of the Coronavirus crisis will be higher on professional higher education in this sense.

11. Do you see this health crisis as an impulse for change in our sector?

That’s for sure; nothing will be the same in the higher education field after the COVID-19 crisis. I think that those institutions who do not take this as an opportunity to undergo digital transformation, will suffer a lot in the future years. We need to make new proposals in our educational model that are more flexible and adaptable for students. I also think that we need to give more importance to the personal development of students, balancing it with their professional development. It’s true that we need to offer our students the best training opportunities, but if we want them to be able to face this kind of situation in society in the future, we need them to be much more flexible, critical, cooperative and resilient.

11. Would you like to add something?

I believe this crisis will impact students’ mobility in every sense. From the very beginning, we have been monitoring the spread of the virus and we took the decision to bring all our students outside Europe back home. That was a complicated decision that we had to take based on student’s health coverage in order to guarantee their health and safety. But it’s true that mobility will be affected more than anything else and I think we should start taking into account what will happen to our international programmes in the near future.