It’s not true, of course, that universities close up shop in late July and August. There’s always a lot of work going on across campuses, visibly and less visibly. The academic financial year ends on 31 July, so finance teams are busy with year-end activities. A-level, International Baccalaureate and BTEC results are out in mid-August so Clearing and Adjustment makes demands of admissions and recruitment teams and academic admissions tutors. Post-graduate taught and research students are working year round. Undergraduate teaching in health courses follows its own calendar. Research is a year-round activity. Estates teams are hard at work. The list could go on, but it is worth saying all this because the idea that this is the “end” of the year is only ever a misrepresentation – that “long” summer vacation is a very partial view of the way universities work.
But this is nonetheless a turning point: the unusual academic year we have all experienced has come to its conclusion. It’s been a long, hard slog for staff and students alike. There’s an intensity about screen-mediated communication for teaching and for organisational development which cannot really be described. The moments which punctuate a working day on campus – walking from teaching room to teaching room, from meeting to meeting, catching up between commitments, unexpected encounters with colleagues – all these evaporate and the working day can be horribly sedentary and intense. I’ve been spending a little more time on campus in the past few weeks –it’s really good to see people in three dimensions and it reminds me how much I have missed the breadth and variety of my conversations all over the University. I know everyone is at the very best a bit ragged after these long months of remote working, and also, now, not a little apprehensive about current trends in Covid cases and about what the future holds.
But I want to use this blog, as I hope I have done on previous occasions, to thank everyone across the University – and, because this blog has, I know, a readership beyond the University, to thank all those across the education system for their hard work and commitment over the past year. Remote operation, periods of isolation, screen working – all have gone on much longer than anyone anticipated. The challenges of the last year have been enormous for staff and for students. It’s been a year no-one would have predicted and no-one wanted. The investment of time, effort and imagination invested by staff in preserving not just course delivery but the entire operation of the University – of the education system as a whole – has been remarkable. At a time when circumstances were extra-ordinarily difficult, those working in this University and in schools and universities around the world rose to the challenge of keeping young people’s futures full of possibility.
It was inevitable that student satisfaction, as measured by the National Student Survey would take a hit in the pandemic – any other result would have been beyond the limits of credibility. It was probably also inevitable that large, diverse universities with practical provision at their core would face a sharper decline in satisfaction. We know from our own feedback and in-boxes that many students are understandably angry and disappointed – why would they not be. The frequent changes in government guidance, the reluctance of government to respond to calls for real investment in education and the near impossibility of making provision for students’ wider personal and social development have made life exceptionally difficult. Neither should we ignore the striking successes of this year’s NSS: in a small number of courses overall satisfaction increased, including in Building Surveying, Physics, Chemical Engineering, some Primary Education and in Media. But none of this makes the results of the National Student Survey any less painful for staff who have tried so hard, and nor does it mean that we don’t need to listen hard to the messages emerging from the statistics and free text comments. Above all, there is an anguished call for engagement with others and with wider opportunities which we need to hear and respond to.
It’s been a long, demanding academic year. It would be a very bold person to assert that 2021/22 will not be without challenges. And, as I began, the rhythm of the academic cycle is quite different for some of our colleagues and teams. I want to thank everyone for their contribution to the simply outstanding work which I’ve seen across the University – and across schools, colleges and universities everywhere this year. The pandemic has been cruel, exposing some fault-lines in our culture and society and cracking open others. The task of recovery, in education and beyond is only just beginning. But for what you have all done, in this University and beyond – thank you.