On February 21st, pretty much as this blog is published, the government will effectively abandon all pandemic-related restrictions in England, just a few weeks short of what will be the second anniversary of the first restrictions being imposed. It has been a long haul, and there remain widely differing views on the speed with which government has moved to abandon restrictions. Looked at from a student perspective, the restrictions have shaped more than two thirds of the experience of the current cohort of students. That makes the publication of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission’s final report last week extremely timely. We are all of us thinking hard about what the post-pandemic university needs to be like: how far the adaptations of the last two years can become a new normal, how the understandable desire for ‘normality’ plays into that, and how much of a long-term shift in expectations of the way universities work we have seen. And these questions are not just questions for universities. The pandemic has been an extra-ordinary experience – a huge jolt to assumptions and behaviours at work and at home, in culture and society, in commerce and leisure. I had coffee with one of the University’s honorary graduates a few weeks ago. He’s a distinguished documentary filmmaker and his working life has been transformed by the pandemic. When I asked him how many of the changes would become permanent, he couldn’t speculate, not least because, the massive increases in costs which pandemic-adaptation have imposed are simply unsustainable in an industry utterly dependent on complex contracting arrangements. And a friend told me about his local vicar, who throughout the pandemic had been sending out podcast sermons to her congregation. ‘We really like the podcasts’ said one worshipper ‘but we are so looking forward to getting back to services again – do you think you could do both?’ The vicar reflected on her already crowded diary and thought that might not be a commitment which could be sustained.
The UPP Student Futures report lays out survey data on the experiences of the pandemic. 73% of students reported that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health. 57% of students said the pandemic had a negative impact on the knowledge they needed to succeed on their course. 52% of students felt they were below where they personally expected to be in their academic studies. 90% of students said they prefer in person teaching where content is also recorded. The Student Futures commission, chaired by Mary Curnock Cook, set out proposals for a ‘student manifesto’ as part of the long-term recovery of student experience, asking universities to commit to six commitments:
- Support for students before they reach university
- An induction into university life for each year of study, for sustained
- Support for mental health and wellbeing
- A clear outline of the teaching they will receive and the necessary tools to access it
- Activities inside and outside the curriculum that build skills, networks and communities
- A clear pathway towards graduate outcomes
The report is an excellent piece of work, and those six areas are exactly the right areas for universities to focus on as we navigate what will be a long haul out of the world of the pandemic. I was lucky enough to see the report before it was published. I told the authors that I thought they’d done an excellent job, but also that there is a missing entity in the report about the importance of social class and how that is going to shape the long-term consequences of disruption. The report quotes Sue Rigby, Vice-Chancellor at Bath Spa on the temptation to think of lost learning as being a ‘little bit’ missing which can be restored, whereas it is more than that. One of the most important issues in our own pandemic response was the complexity of student lives. The students sharing a Wi-Fi connection or a working space are quite different from the students in comfortable homes with always attentive parental support. The report is quite right and makes thoughtful comments on student (and staff) mental health but there are some long-term issues which flow through from disadvantage also, and which will not dissipate quickly.
The report is thoughtful, and helpfully non-prescriptive about teaching methods and it demonstrates the importance of universities thinking clearly about the nature of their offer. It understands – perhaps in a way which politicians and journalists often don’t – that the simplistic gap between ‘face to face’ and ‘online’ is meaningless in a technology enabled world, but its survey data has let it down on some of the over-simple distinctions between ‘lectures’ and ‘seminars’. The work we have done at Hallam on a ‘common language’ for learning is somewhat ahead of the report, and I think, ahead of much sector thinking, as it tries to unpack the relationship between the types of learning which co-exist across the university and the locations in which learning takes place. The report concludes that “the future is digital”, but a better formulation is that the “future is digitally enabled”; staff and students will need to be supported to move between different modes of engagement in (another Hallam phrase) the “extended campus”. Where the report is much stronger, I think is in asserting the powerful importance of ‘community-making’ through both curricular and extra-curricular experiences. If the pandemic taught us anything, it was the importance of communities, however we construct and engage with them.
The overwhelming educational and moral task of the next months and years is to rebuild student futures, learning lessons of the pandemic but thinking clearly about the challenges our students face and the most creative ways we can support them. Mary Curnock Cook’s Student Futures report is an excellent contribution – challenging, rigorous and thoughtful – and it deserves to help shape the way we all think about futures.