Getting back

The Government has announced that all legal pandemic restrictions will end on July 19. Covid is not over: as the new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid has said, as a society we are going to need to learn to live with Covid-19.  Clearly, he isn’t wrong: Covid-19 is simply the latest coronavirus in global circulation. Four coronaviruses cause around a quarter of all the world’s common colds, and whilst each was deadly when it first made the leap to humans, societies have learnt to manage them. But there has been a marked shift in government policy, a shift from public health-led measures to an emphasis on individual responsibility for taking precautions.  Decisions about, for example, wearing masks in crowded environments or on public transport will become individual, not societal.  I can remember working in Hong Kong soon after the 2004 SARS outbreak and noticing that a fair number of people were routinely wearing masks on the street, on trams or on the mass transit rail system.  It looked unusual to my untutored eye – I suspect it will become a familiar sight in this country as we move to a new phase of the management of Covid-19.

The past fifteen months have been remarkable for individuals, for organisations and for society.  Look at any graph you choose of human social or economic activity and the story of the 2020/21 pandemic is writ large: a sharp fall in economic activity, the disappearance of traffic congestion, a hiatus in carbon emissions, the collapse of international travel. From the trivial to the serious, the pandemic has been a global shock which has impacted on every single individual’s experience. It’s difficult to think of an event in recent history which has had the same concentrated impact. Because we live in a globally inter-dependent world, the virus impacted almost simultaneously the world over.  Most other recent epochal events have not had the same range or immediacy. Other epidemics have travelled more slowly; major political or economic events have left some parts of the globe untouched.  The 2020/21 pandemic has been a “one world” experience. That, alone, makes it remarkable.

Some things will return to a pre-pandemic profile more quickly than others.  One of the most depressing datasets I’ve seen recently is on carbon emissions – almost back to their February 2020 levels, even though it’s almost universally acknowledged that they need to decline rapidly.  I’ve a ghastly feeling that we shall regard 2020/21 as a missed opportunity in the struggle to tame emissions, and that emissions may even rise more sharply, as people’s travel habits continue to shy away from public transport, in part because of safety concerns.  Other things will not return anywhere near as quickly: there has been an almost irreversible shift towards online purchasing, reinforcing and deepening pre-pandemic trends which are hollowing out urban centres.  I suspect we are all now asking questions about what we wish to preserve from the past fifteen months, what we wish to go back to, and what fresh starts we want to make.

As a University, we’ve been asking all those questions across the full range of our working: teaching, research, innovation, organisation and operations.  The answers are not always easy or straightforward, and no doubt, there will continue to be twists and turns along the way as this pandemic is far from over. There are students who want only to return to face-to-face in-person teaching; there are students who have thrived on the opportunities to work and learn more flexibly.  Although a very large proportion of our staff, in all areas of the University, want to work more flexibly, that’s not universal.  Over the last few months, we’ve listened hard to staff and students as we plot a route forward, embedding flexibility in our working whilst making sure that we can offer students a genuinely distinctive engaging campus experience where they learn through interlocking routes.

For our students, it means learning through a range of interlocking approaches:  they learn through making effective use of in-person teaching; learn by doing and collaborating in specialist laboratories, studios and performance spaces; learn by engaging with real-world work experience and work-based projects; learn through independent study in libraries and resource bases; and finally learn digitally through technological collaborative platforms and apps.

For our staff, it means making effective use of campus-based and remote-working, which means adapting and innovating in the way we use our physical and digital estates. Like all organisations, across the public and private sectors, all of this means a change in mind-set and ways of working, which involves extensive communication, engagement and reflection – which, also like all other organisations, we won’t always get right first time.

What will change, and what will stay the same?  It’s an almost impossible question to answer. The past year has told us that things can change in an instant.  The apparently impossible becomes familiar. The familiar becomes unusual. We’ve all navigated a huge amount of change and learnt so much.  The real challenge now is to use what we have learnt to help shape a better future for our staff, our students and our region.

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