What can universities promise about student life in September? Who knows

As government guidance has gradually been introduced for various industries, workplaces and facilities, people – including those that run universities – are starting to get a grip on what the “new normal” may look like.

But students are still yet to know what this “new student experience” will look like, and what it might mean for their health and lifestyle. National advice and announcements on higher education have somehow managed to include 50 page documents that don’t actually commit to too much at all – and none of them seem to display an understanding of what it’s like to experience, rather than teach in or operate higher education.

And this issue of what “life” will be like really matters. Even if a university offers clarity over what it will “deliver”, students’ #1 question will still be “what is it like there”, and returners will want to know how their life will change too.

The old normal

For years, the stereotypical new undergraduate student experience has gone something like this:

  • Apply for your course, receive an acceptance letter or email and then receive your housing allocation. Join a social media group and find other people on your course, or in your halls of residence, or wanting to join the same sports team as you. Proceed to spend hours in department stores with your parents picking out which duvet covers you want to buy or which potted plant you won’t manage to kill in a week.
  • Arrive on a sunny (or rainy) weekend in September to unpack your car, helped by a friendly current student dressed in a bright t-shirt, brimming with conversations about the great nights out, the great parties, the great friends you’ll meet. Piling your new life into a tiny box room and making it your own. Spending evenings sat in your kitchen getting to know your new housemates, nights out at “Freshers Balls” or “Paint Parties”. Drag yourself around the Freshers Fayre, probably after a few too many late nights, to get all of the free pens and tote bags that your heart desires.
  • This is usually accompanied by more formal “Orientation Weeks” of weird activities designed to help you bond with course mates over the awkwardness of it all rather than the actual ice-breaking task you’re being made to do. Lunch times are sat in other students’ kitchens, or the university bar, or the local pub, making notes about your course content or putting the world’s issues to right.
  • As term gets going, you get a part time job in a bar or cafe to help pay the rent. You sit in your favourite lecturer’s office and have a little cry when perhaps it all gets a little too much, them offering you a cup of tea or a tissue and some wise words, to offer some solace. You manage to complete group work gathered in the only free table you’ve been about to find in the study room. All-nighters in the university library are fuelled by coffee from the vending machines in the 24-hour cafes. And you celebrate it all with groups of new friends, new relationships, new experiences.

But what if none of this can happen in this stereotypical way? And what if a lot of this can’t happen at all?

I never knew you

What if sports teams and societies aren’t able to meet face to face, with students having to suffice with “football club sessions” via Zoom? What if students are restricted to their halls of residences, unable to mingle with others and move freely? What if SU events where students find people not on their course are no more? What if the bars, cafés, communal working spaces and libraries aren’t open due to fear or crowds or no social distancing, so there’s nowhere for students to work together?

What if students can’t work closely together at all? What if many lecturers do not have face-to-face contact with their students? What if that vending machine that gave you the critical coffee that kept you awake at 4am in the library, is now in a locked café? What if students – when they’re not in the significantly reduced contact hours that universities can put on – have to stay in their room, alone, away from home?

We know that students are able to move online. We’ve seen the awards evenings, socials, student council meetings, pub quizzes and so much other fantastic activity that students and SUs across the country have been able to pull together during the course of this pandemic.

But what if this isn’t accessible for all? What if a student isn’t “tech savvy”? What if this new experience without all of the traditional, existing activity isn’t feasible? What if much of it depended on social and group activity being built physically first?

What’s the catch?

It’s hard to ignore university advertising during the pandemic, and to compare the messaging to the realities being discussed by SU officers around the country in working groups and with students, applicants and their parents. We already know that that advertising can set up unrealistic and unattainable expectations of “student life”.

Yet even in the midst of a pandemic and a September that looks set to be isolating and lonely, university messaging everywhere is still preaching about the wider student experience – subtly suggesting that much of it will still be possible, and that what isn’t will be back in just a few weeks.

This is difficult. Saying that certain aspects of student life may be different to before or that some may not even exist entirely, is something that many have shied away from to not turn people off from their institutions. Many SU officers have heard the phrase “we’ve got to keep them warm” – upsetting when we know that there isn’t much that can be done on the resources or time available to make the experience a good one if social distancing rules are still in place in September.

Fundamentally, promises should not be made that cannot be kept. A student should not be guaranteed a student experience on the premise of activities or plans that may not ever come to fruition now that everything is having to change.

Students asking questions about provision should be given honest and clear answers. Sometimes, that can mean breaking news that may mean they do not want to attend your institution anymore – and whilst that’s a hard blow to deliver, it is not fair if they are kept in the dark about realistic expectations.

Sometimes, it can also mean removing uncertain language and HE-friendly jargon from messages to make sure that the message is not misread or misconstrued. “Maybe”, “where possible” and “perhaps” are all incredibly subjective. I’m not saying that positive communications are wrong – it’s just important to not get hopes up where they can then be shattered.

It can also mean being very honest about not having answers there and then. It is good to normalise saying “we don’t know enough about this to make a statement now, but as soon as we do we’ll come back to you”, because that is far better than making empty guarantees that may have to be withdrawn in a day, a week, or a months’ time.

As an SU officer who often has to be the one to break the news, my advice is to use transparent communications when talking to students, both new and returning. Ensure that students are on the same page as you, whether that’s a page that you want to dwell on or not. And finally, take them on the whole journey with you; whether that’s a straight road to the “new normal”, or it is one littered with U-turns, road blocks and route changes. They will thank you for your honesty far more than empty promises.

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