There used to be a market for almanacs of predictions about the year ahead. Perhaps there still is. These almanacs were always frankly unbelievable, not simply because the future is by definition unknowable but because the predictions were always on the apocalyptic side – the way to sell these things is to veer towards the stark. No-one buys an almanac which says “things will putter on”. A prediction for January 2021 which said ‘Britain will leave the European Union. All schools and almost all workplaces will be closed. There will be an attempted coup in America’ would not have made it passed even the most sales-desperate editor. But this is 2021. And we’re only ten days in.
This is disorienting and disturbing, troubling and destabilising. As I write this blog, I am looking out of the window of my work room at a cold day of dense fog, which seems to capture the spirit of the time. I know from my conversations with colleagues, students, family and friends that the government’s January restrictions are being experienced more painfully than those of Spring or Autumn. That this is more difficult for everyone is a combination of the weather outside, the uncertainties about the next few weeks, the new and more transmissible Covid variant, even with (now) three vaccines on the horizon, and the sheer longevity of the pandemic. It’s much more difficult to get outside in the winter than the summer. It’s much more difficult to look after children or vulnerable relatives in the winter. It does just seem to have gone on for so long.
It’s obviously tough in a blog like this to stand back from the present, and perhaps it’s just too soon even to try. There are some priorities for all of us. The top priority, wherever you are, whatever your circumstance is to look out for those who are dearest to you. We all know, I guess, that we find it much more difficult to attend to our own needs if the ones we love, care for and live with are struggling. We care for ourselves partly by making sure we are looking after those around us. If we can, we should also reach out to others just beyond our immediate families and homes. One of the small things I particularly enjoy about working at Hallam is our Random Coffee scheme – before the pandemic, this worked face to face; now it is virtual. It does pretty much what the name says: you sign up for Random Coffee and each month are randomly paired for coffee with another colleague. I’ve always really enjoyed my Random Coffee conversations, but during the pandemic they really have been invaluable – giving me the chance to have a good chat with colleagues across the university I wouldn’t normally meet. Everyone should have a random coffee.
Things are, of course, especially challenging for our students. There is an enormous amount of work going on to secure the quality of students’ academic and wider experience during the pandemic and almost every day I come across imaginative ideas for engagement and support, both in teaching and learning and in the other aspects of study, from virtual work experience to e-mentoring schemes. The imagination and commitment of our resources teams, ensuring the supply of library materials, information technology support and practical equipment to support study is exceptional. The response of Hallam Help and of our academic, support and employability advisers to enormous increases in demand has been remarkable. Even so, my in-box is evidence that students are finding this period tough: as we move towards what is essentially a full year of restrictions, that’s a reminder that when you are eighteen or nineteen, a year is a huge proportion of your life. Our obligation to look out for those we care for clearly includes our students.
I’ve written before in these blogs about the sheer importance of universities as communities, as investments in knowledge, as part of society’s conversation with the future. Covid is tough for individuals and for institutions but it has also proved tough for governments, who have had to react to the pace of events and the fog of uncertainty like anyone else. Even so, government has too often responded to the transactional challenges of the situation – to the immediate issues of provision and the movement of students. If we all have a responsibility to look out for those who are important to us, government has a responsibility to make sure that the infrastructure of higher education is well-supported. Students are our investment in tomorrow. Research itself is a sort of vaccine for the future. Universities are some of the major tools by which we make that investment. That tone has too often been missing from government’s engagement with the sector.
This blog began with a reminder of just how unpredictable our world is. Few of us can do much about unpredictability. We can try to keep our eye on the things that matter and the values which bind us, and, most of all, look out for each other.