Throughout my career, I’ve always had a very distinctive feeling at this time of year. You know that Autumn is in the air. The mornings are a little darker and a little cooler. The leaves beginning to turn. The “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is upon us. Despite a careful reading of Keats’s poem, though, I cannot find him referring to something that also captures this time of year for me. Summer over, pupils are returning to schools. There is always a proportion of them starting new schools, in uniforms slightly too large – that growing room is so important – and looking fresh and clean. As the mists accumulate and the mornings and evenings draw in, there’s a newness about seeing them make their way to school. That means that the distinctive feeling I have at this time of year is a curious mixture of sadness that the days of summer are over alongside the hope that’s epitomised in the new term. I don’t know of a word which describes that feeling, though I’d be disappointed if there isn’t a language somewhere which has a term for it.
This year, that feeling is there again, but tinged with something else. I suspect we all have a mixture of optimism and trepidation. Around the country, there is a sense of optimism that the restrictions of the pandemic are receding, and that something recognisable is within reach. We are all travelling farther afield, seeing friends and family again, visiting different places. It’s impossible not to be optimistic as a result of that: the long restrictions of the pandemic are in retreat. The signage and instructions which were obvious everywhere are being taken down. But at the same time there is trepidation. Vaccination has broken the link between Covid cases and hospitalisations, but case numbers are nonetheless rising. None of us quite know how the next few months are going to develop. In a briefing for university leaders a few weeks ago, a senior government scientist said that whilst there was a lot more confidence in our national ability to manage the response to Covid than a year ago, it was still the case that the virus had the capacity to throw “something unexpected at us every few months”.
One of the issues I’ve been increasingly concerned about over the last year has been the impacts – long-term and short-term – of the pandemic on young people. Their education disrupted, their socialisation attenuated, their entry to higher education and beyond that the labour market thrown into doubt – this generation now faces the long haul of the economic and social recovery from Covid. University undergraduate students entering their third – and final – year this September have experienced just one semester of Covid-unaffected teaching. Students beginning their degree programme have seen virtually all of their A-level or BTEC experience disrupted. In each case – new level six students and new level four students – there are going to be challenging issues around managing their engagement with learning as we enter this academic year. And, in different ways the same is true for post-graduate students.
I’ve been strenuously resisting the phrase ‘return to normal’ in the context of university teaching. That’s for several reasons. The first is that we have all learnt a lot during the pandemic about how flexibilities can be explored, about the way technologies can be combined to shape a compelling educational experience. We’ve learnt to use the full range of our resources – physical, digital, practical and so on – in different ways. For twenty years, it’s been the case that young people’s adoption of mobile and remote technologies was moving faster than the education system’s use of such approaches, so the last eighteen months has seen a rapid catching up.
But it’s also the case that nothing quite matches the power of interaction in education. With sensible precautions about the way we use our teaching resources and manage movement around the university, with an emphasis on safety, hygiene and, above all, thoughtful consideration for others, we owe it to our mission and our students to manage a successful return to campus-based teaching and learning. Like everyone else, I recognise that there will be some nervousness and apprehension, and that views will differ. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we must plan for a range of possible scenarios, and be ready to adapt our provision at speed if circumstances change.
Like all other educational institutions, this university has undertaken a huge amount of thinking and planning about what our next steps in the evolution of teaching, learning and student experience look like. We’ve developed what – I think – is a unique ‘common language for learning’ to capture the way we want to engage students in their studies and the life of the university. That’s not based on a return to a pre-pandemic way of working, but it does something which is always fundamental to any successful school or university: it puts our students at the centre and celebrates our determination to help them succeed.