With our students back on campus and all of us continuing to adapt to the changing challenges of COVID-19, I am writing this week’s blog from the perspective of a parent. While we have students of all ages in the University, a large proportion of our new starters are young adults coming to us straight from school, and they have been the generation whose education, friendships and social life has been the most disrupted by the pandemic.
Although my daughter has been through university, she graduated recently enough that her experiences are fresh in my mind. From the beginning of the pandemic, and in every decision I have had to make, I have thought about how my daughter would have coped and how I, as a parent, would have felt and what I would have wanted for her. What is the best we can do for our students under the current circumstances? Ensure they are safe, have the ability to develop a working relationship with their tutors through some face-to-face teaching, enable access to libraries, sports facilities, welfare support, careers services, catering outlets and other resources and give them as much of a social experience as we can under social distancing rules. I have seen the enormous work all our staff have done to deliver on all of those opportunities for the benefit of our students. This is the first time any of us have done anything like this. While we all knew that this was not going to be an ‘ordinary’ university experience, as the weeks go on, we will need to recognise where we can improve our support and change what we do accordingly.
I receive many more emails now from worried parents than I ever did in the past, and I completely understand why. In normal circumstances, we see our children becoming increasingly independent from their first day of school, and by the time they go to university, they are making their own decisions and beginning to look after their own lives. Although everyone experienced lockdown differently, I suspect a common scenario was a situation where young people were unable to exercise their growing independence and were spending more time with their parents than they had since they were infants. I am sure this brought with it many pleasures and joys of family life; it created a secure environment; but it also exacerbated the anxiety, fears and hopes that come from both parents and their children when the latter leave home for the first time.
Understandably, with positive cases on campus, and with some students being asked to self-isolate, parents will be even more anxious. Given that we are doing asymptomatic testing and generally more testing than many other universities, we will be identifying cases ahead of the official statistics, and that is likely to fuel more anxiety. However, it also means that we can identify cases that otherwise would remain undetected, and we can use this information to reduce asymptomatic transmission and the number of future cases. All of this work is being done in conjunction with Public Health England advice, and we are fortunate to have a very close working relationship with those officials in the City and County.
I spent last Wednesday afternoon talking to staff and students in halls of residence, and some of our Senior Leaders and members of UEB volunteered their time over the weekend to visit halls and meet students. It became clear over the course of last week that we had not anticipated absolutely everything that we needed to do in the event of self-isolating households, but I have been impressed at how quickly our hall, catering and campus life staff have enhanced our support for self-isolating students in just a few days. There is however still more we need to do.
It also became clear that there are a variety of views among students. Many are enjoying being on campus, making friends, participating in sport and beginning their academic programmes. To these individuals, the realities of newly found independence under COVID-19 are energising, rather than daunting. Others of course are anxious, unsettled and worried, and it is our responsibility to do everything we can to support these students as they settle down. It will be easy for them to give up and return to the security of the family home, but it may not be the best thing for their long-term wellbeing and success.
There are a number of media commentaries in recent days that have decried the efforts of universities to provide a campus experience for young people who have already missed out on so much and called for us to return to teaching only online. The counterfactual of this is less predictable: what if we had gone fully online, told students to stay at home? How long would this go on, given that the pandemic could feasibly be around for years? What would this mean for numerous subject areas where online teaching can only be done temporarily and not over the longer term (e.g. medicine and health sciences, engineering, performing arts, lab sciences)? And most of all, what would become of a whole generation of students - many of whom expressed loss of motivation during the extended period of lockdown? What would be the longer-term future for our students, staff and the university itself if this alternative were to continue for many more months or years?
Some of the same commentators arguing that all teaching should go online from the start of the session were only a matter of weeks ago disparaging universities for delivering their education completely online during lockdown. The truth is that for every person calling for all learning to be online, there is another person who is demanding that all teaching be face-to-face. It feels to me like yet another version of the divisions that our country has suffered in recent years. Unfortunately, even our serious media outlets have descended into tabloid clickbait, searching for people willing to complain to camera, and not balancing these stories with alternative views. There is little nuance to these divisions, and I would suggest that we can only try to make decisions as best we can, ensuring the safety of staff and students so that we can deliver our education under the current constraints.
Yes, a campus experience will be different during a pandemic – it will be many good things, but it will also feel different and on occasion restrictive, particularly for young people, eager for intellectual stimulation, fun and excitement. I have found that since national lockdown ended, expectations have been high that familiar things will be as close to normal as possible, when there is no way they can be. These days, whenever I go for a swim, or to a pub, or to the hairdresser, I recognise the diminishment of the pleasures that we took for granted before COVID-19, and it is tempting to be melancholy or angry about that. However, on the other hand, even the modicum of normality that such day-to-day events provide for us surely should be treasured and give us hope for the future. An educational experience at a campus university should be seen in that light.
I am proud of my colleagues at the University of Nottingham for doing everything they can to give this generation of students that modicum of normality. To parents I would say: we will work on continuously improving our support for your children, so that the pandemic does not prevent them from experiencing a successful and happy life.
Professor Shearer West
5 October 2020