This week, our main undergraduate cohorts arrive for what will, inevitably, be a rather different week of academic and institutional welcome activities. Sheffield Hallam is one of the UK’s largest universities, so the numbers are considerable. We will welcome nearly 7000 new UK undergraduate students, together with post-graduate and international students for their first term at the University, and in total some 32000 students. It’s normally one of the busiest weeks of the year as the campus springs into life after its summer break.
Of course, this year will be different. An extra-ordinary amount of very detailed planning has gone on. The campus has been adapted. The timetable has been overhauled. A set of ‘delivery principles’ has been adopted to ensure that all our students are able to engage with the University’s teaching in a COVID-secure fashion. Risk assessments have been completed. There has been an enormous communications effort. The contributions across the University from so many different teams to a common goal have been exceptional. Over the past couple of weeks, we have attracted a good deal of media coverage for our preparation – partly the result of the high profile the University now enjoys with national media. Visitors have been impressed.
But whilst the campus has been adapted and safety measure are in place, one of my priorities is to understand just how this very different experience feels for our students. To do that, I’ll be spending time – masked, of course – on campus observing and talking, as well as drawing on the evaluation data we collect.
The success of the arrangements we have made will depend partly on our planning but also, as is always the case with any social rules, on self-regulation: we will need our students and staff to adapt to this ‘next normal’. We all have to adapt our behaviours. I’m confident that the overwhelming majority of students and staff will want to make these new arrangements work in the interests of all. The clarity of the government’s new messaging – ‘The rule of six’ – is extremely helpful for managing what is by any standards a very large and diverse community. Where compliance falls short, we have a range of measures to back it up. This matters for all sorts of reasons. We all have a responsibility to protect each other, and especially the more vulnerable members of our community, and we all have a responsibility as citizens to or neighbours in the region.
As well as safety messages to our students and staff, we’ve also been working very hard on communications with the wider south Yorkshire population. A couple of weeks ago, myself and the Vice-Chancellors of the University of Sheffield wrote an article in the Sheffield Telegraph on the measures we are jointly taking to try to ensure that the return of large numbers of students to the city is a success for all. At a number of different levels and in different ways we are co-ordinating closely across the city to meet the challenge arising from the arrival of a large number of new residents in the city. In addition to the new residents, some 13000 of Hallam’s students, and a good number of our sister university’s students, are daily commuter students.
It’s now over one hundred and fifty days since lockdown began. The recent news – on testing, on local infection trends, on continued restrictions on social behaviour – has made it clear that we are, in ways we had not anticipated, in for a long haul. I imagine that if you are anything like me, that’s news which – however much you thought you understood it rationally – has an emotional impact. Recognising that emotional impact is part of what we need to do to look after ourselves.
At Sheffield Hallam we have made plans – we think thorough and effective – to enable our students to succeed and thrive in these curious times. We have made plans to offer the distinctive Hallam experience through novel and imaginative routines. Alongside that, we have tested plans to ensure that our students and staff can be safe on campus. The campus does look and will feel different. Interactions will be different. But I’ve always been convinced that universities are made by interactions: interactions between students from quite different backgrounds, between staff and students, between teams of staff. We are all of us having to adapt our assumptions and our ways of being to different times. They are profoundly challenging times. Alongside all of the planning, we need to look out for each other.