The ‘new normal’ at English universities doesn’t have to be so bad | Kimi chaddah
TThis month, there is a sense of anticipation in the air as students like me begin to return to college in record numbers. While students have been permitted to enter campus at various times over the past 18 months, this academic term will be the first time many will be able to host college bar parties, host company meetings and, of course, attend classes and conferences.
Durham University, the University of Bath and the University of Sheffield are among the universities that hold in-person lectures in some departments. After a year in which the opposite has been dictated, being in a room with a lot of people is unsettling. But with cautious optimism, I look forward to the spontaneity of the in-person interaction. However, some institutions, such as the University of Edinburgh, the University of Cambridge, and the London School of Economics, run smaller face-to-face seminars, but keep virtual lectures this year. It looks like some of the short-term solutions adopted during the pandemic are here to stay.
There are valid reasons for keeping some e-learning in a hybrid model. It’s safer as fall approaches with Covid-19 still in circulation, and may be more accessible for some students with disabilities. But it’s not without its drawbacks, devoid of the interaction, warmth, and energy you find in a room full of like-minded people. I know from my experience as a freshman last year how easy it is to fall behind on classes and online lessons: conversations with teachers felt detached and the connections felt. with superficial classmates. “It feels like we’re stuck on a break,” says Sophia, a second year math student at Leeds University. “Everything else moves on – the schools, the events, the weather itself, and we’re stuck looking at the screens.”
For first-year students who will have already suffered from two years of disrupted learning due to intermittent lockdowns and episodes of self-isolation, these educational barriers will be particularly difficult. Costs related to the increase in the number of students could finance remedial services and pastoral support; for example, at the University of Birmingham freshmen were given methods on how to study and pass the course.
Some students may not have taken exams since their GCSES: To ease the pressure next summer, universities could offer students the option of postponing exams or exempting their results. In cases where this is not possible, they can take open book tests or replace them with lessons.
And just as important as school guidance, this cohort will also need pastoral care. “We need transition mentors and points of contact,” says Hope, a first year student at University College London. Her last year of school was characterized by stress and self-isolation, and she tells me that she has “social” and nervous difficulties about returning to large groups. Mental health services will be essential in helping students navigate this enormous moment of transition: from school to university, from confinement to normal life.
For sophomores who have spent most of their freshman year trapped in on-campus accommodation, hosting activities reminiscent of a typical freshman week might create the sense of community that their students have so far lacked. college experience and allay concerns that established friendships have already been formed. “Right now, any event that just introduces students to each other is worth it,” says Emily, a second year student at Newcastle University.
The following months will be difficult for students, and that’s before they have to find a conference room they’ve never visited, let alone heard. But change, when managed well, can be an opportunity for growth. Before the pandemic, universities were breeding grounds for isolation and loneliness, with students having to wait months for mental health counseling and support. By finally listening to the acute needs of their students this year, universities can begin to put well-being at the heart of their institutions. The new normal doesn’t have to be so bad.