Empathy and compassion are vital now and into the autumn

To get the new academic year on its feet to the best of our ability, we will need to ask what matters most, argues Newcastle DVC Julie Sanders.

As we emerge blinking from the first few weeks of crisis management, there is now much debate in the sector about the academic year 2020-2021 and what it might look like.

Recent discussions have focussed attention on the financial predicament of universities, many of which have modelled for a large intake of international students and are now finding, in the context of a Covid-19 world, that international mobility looks likely to be highly challenged for some time to come.

For those of us who were already seeking in earnest to address the climate emergency, this was already a model under pressure.

At the same time, the risk of a second and third wave of Covid-19 are extremely likely, so in the UK we need to be realistic and prepare for the fact that physical distancing measures may be in place in some form for a while to come.

The traditional lecture hall, for example, looks to be an increasingly unlikely locale for mainstream teaching in the autumn and we probably need to accept that “business as usual” is unlikely to be restored for a very long time – if at all.

Same old brand new you

But these are not decisions that should be solely driven by financial models and the immediate, direct impact of the pandemic. We are, in this altered and uncertain landscape, all finding new versions of who we are and higher education is no exception. So what are the things we are learning in this moment of profound change?

While most universities can tell an impressive story of how colleagues and students achieved the pivot online almost overnight, with humanity, compassion and creativity, we are also, in this moment of lockdown and physical distancing, realising afresh the very things that we value most about the face-to-face interactions and the community-building that a university education makes possible.

When I’m not being DVC, I teach the works of Shakespeare and his early modern contemporaries. It is not impossible to create some brilliant and engaging online materials but if some of my own most vivid memories of being an undergraduate are about standing on tables pretending to be Juliet at her window or pushing people around rooms as we vocalised the Sonnets, it seems clear to me at least that we shouldn’t assume that remote delivery compensates for, or permanently replaces, those crystalline moments of physical connection and exploration – be that in the lab or the drama studio.

So what could or should be possible next year?

Taking a pulse

Learning from China’s move to begin rebuilding after a period of intense lockdown, we need to think about a year that may see us having to work through pulses of opening up and locking down, and all of the anxieties that come with trying to emerge from what is without doubt a global traumatic experience.

But we should still aim to get the new academic year “on its feet” to the best of our ability, and we will do that by asking what matters most.

Most universities, including my own, are now starting to plan a year that will function as a mixed economy, adapting the best of the new digital skills we have developed to offer a blend of online delivery and face-to-face teaching. Making real our commitment to place-based education at Newcastle, we hope that many students will be able to begin that year resident in our great city, but we recognise that won’t be possible for all and that we will need to adjust to different vulnerabilities in real time. Trying to rebuild our city-based community as soon as possible though is an important recognition that for a large number of students (many of them international) they will have been here throughout the summer months.

Different disciplines can offer different kinds of experience. Blended and flexible models hold out far greater opportunity to be more inclusive and foster accessible modes of learning and they may also enable us to address some of the social justice issues brought into sharp relief by the virus. Perhaps we can also, in this moment of renewal, reach for the sustained yet radical new model of higher education that the climate emergency necessitates?

Empathy and compassion

Everything we do needs to be underpinned by compassion. An acknowledgement of what the world, our students, our colleagues and we ourselves have gone through will need to inform all of our decisions.

This year’s A level students may feel deeply frustrated. Everything they’ve worked for, all that adrenaline spent and they won’t have the chance to prove themselves, to have that sixth form party or collect their grades with their mates on results day. Even Freshers’ week may have to be for them a virtual experience.

And yet I truly believe this generation of students will be a profound and brilliant generation. It is our responsibility to make sure we adapt what we do to give them the very best possible educational experience and to start this work as soon as possible.

Last week I gave a short online talk in our university’s public engagement lecture series all about “Shakespeare in the time of lockdown”. I am someone who has spent a career studying the vibrant way in which his works are adapted around the world, made useful to different moments, cultures and challenges. So from the window-based “quarantine” performance of that same Romeo and Juliet balcony scene that has entranced social media in recent days, to the daily acts of creativity that are recreating our sense of community anew, even at our moments of greatest physical isolation, we need to learn from those same skills of adaptation and remake UK HE to create something truly special for the academic year ahead.

Not perfectly formed, not without its risks or its challenges, but something caring and creative and full of hope for the future. Our students deserve no less.

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