One day last week, I stepped into Hallam Café and heard something I’d not really heard for two years. It sounded – to my ears – beautifully musical. I took out my phone and recorded the sound. For the rest of the day, I was playing it to anyone I met in the course of my work. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable sound, but it was wonderful to hear. It was the sound of the hum of human voices, a lot of them: the gentle hubbub of people talking to each other in small groups. It was the sound of a campus re-populated. A few days later, I was addressing a group of new undergraduate and post-graduate students as part of Welcome Week. I told them that this was their university, and that without people our campus is not really a campus – it’s a collection of buildings. There’s a real sense, as we start the academic year 2022/23 that the campus really is re-awakening. There students and staff filling our buildings. There are new students repeatedly stopping me to ask for directions. There are voices and bodies, and they are wonderful to see. There are queues in our cafés: I said to some students at the back of one of the queues ‘Perhaps you’ve all missed queueing, and want to enjoy it again, but if not, there’s another café just upstairs’. I noticed that not all of them moved.
I also said in my welcome talk that the pandemic had been a bruising time for all our new – and, indeed, returning – students. We’ve all been changed by the pandemic, as individuals and as a university. Covid is not over, of course, but the World Health Organisation is clear that the pandemic phase is almost over. The evidence we have is that students are hungry for human contact and face-to-face experience. This is true right across the full range of the University’s provision – in teaching, in student support and in societies and sports. This doesn’t mean – because it cannot – that the student experience of 2022/23 is a ‘return’ to the student experience of Autumn 2019. We – all of us – have learnt to work in different ways, to move with greater facility and ease between the face-to-face and the technologically-facilitated. But survey after survey, and focus group after focus group is clear that an engaging and immersive face-to-face experience is vital for grounding student, and staff, experience.
At Hallam, a huge amount of work has been done on what ‘re-animating’ the campus needs to look and feel like. A large-scale project has been led by Nick Woolley, Director of Campus Services, and Sam Giove, Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in the College of Business, Technology and Engineering. It draws together over twenty workstreams which look hard at student and staff experience and put in place some sustained support for the re-engagement of our campus. The immediate effects of that project are seen in the campus of the last fortnight – something of a festival feel, and an energetic programme of engagement to get courses and wider student experience off to a flying start.
As Nick and Sam have explained to me and to other leaders, we shouldn’t assume that re-awakening the campus, and re-engaging students, is going to be a short-term project. The pandemic has shaken all organisations to the core, and perhaps education institutions more than many. I’ve always believed that face-to-face engagement is fundamental to what universities do. There are several profound reasons for that. One of them is that right across the world, universities now play a critical role in socialisation, in mediating the transition from adolescence to adulthood, their functions going way beyond academic delivery. But it’s also the case, that in the core functions of teaching and research, universities are and should be social institutions: they are not just places where we learn, study, and research, but they are places where we learn, study, and research together. The Hallam Model, the underlying framework for our curriculum design, is based on four principles – engage, challenge, collaborate and thrive. All of them depend on human connection. Again, in my welcome talk to students, I stressed this. I said to them, and I’ll say to all of our students, whoever they are, wherever they are from, whatever they are studying, we want them to belong, to feel part of an engaged and enthused community. And that’s why the apparently humdrum sound of human voices was so sonorously musical.