Empathy is what we’ll all need next

Ben Vulliamy interrogates social media commentary on the student experience during the pandemic and concludes we should try to understand rather than react.

Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union

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Twitter is rarely a place for subtlety, complexity or nuance – and I’ve recently found myself getting frustrated by some of the rhetoric on it from a small group of academic staff.

Characterising students as “angry” at their lecturers, “undervaluing” the quality and challenges of delivering an online only course, and making “unreasonable demands” about fees that lacked understanding of university economics, some of it deployed unreasonable caricatures of students – implying they were ungrateful for the education they were enjoying, were unaware of their privilege, and had a flawed understanding of value for money.

My late night contribution to the debate was to say that we need to remember when a student says they feel “ripped off” by a year in Covid uni lockdown, they are not blaming academics. They are saying they miss the close contact with great academics. They long for immersive, experiential learning in a shared, creative physical space.

I argued that some get defensive when students say they didn’t want an online only degree and thought their degree was going to be different. It’s the talent and passion of academics that they want to engage with more than “online only” currently allows.

I argued that that’s why we should stop attacking student questions about whether what they see as astronomical debt is justified, when it was a different type of learning teaching they were expecting. Criticising questions by stating the amount of online lectures that have been delivered, the time taken to prepare them or the wider terms and conditions of those doing that work doesn’t help.

I said that students aren’t (usually) saying that they didn’t have an online lecture, or that academics shouldn’t be paid. They are saying they thought they could also occasionally share a seminar room with academics, or do group work that didn’t require sharing a dodgy WiFi connection with their kid brother in a shared bedroom.

I concluded by suggesting that we can all be fed up, exhausted and frustrated – it’s a shared scenario that needs a shared solution.

Endorphins and likes

The response to my thread was very positive despite the Twitter version containing a couple of spelling and grammatical errors, the brief appearance of bad language and some poor phraseology. As such I could sit back feeling proud with my little outburst into my own echo chamber.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the problem of false divides extends further still and the opportunity – maybe even the need for – shared ambition is greater than my tweets proposed.

Universities are distinctively tribal. Institutions can simplistically be broken down into students, academics, professional services staff and the revered and mysterious management or senior leadership.

Watching these groups’ posture and general operation is fascinating from the perspective of a students’ union CEO who doesn’t sit entirely within any of them – although I do specifically work for one of those groups. All four of these groups appear prone at times to being fairly horrible about the others, and frequently express feelings of being put upon, undervalued or misunderstood by the others.

The question is about the extent to which the ideology of the groups differs in reality. Everyone’s had a rotten time. Everyone’s exhausted. Cross-institutional working is really hard. I also get that divisions of labour are real. I can absolutely empathise with the exhaustion of trying to communicate with different stakeholders and get them engaged in change programs.

But we must acknowledge that indulging ourselves in the temptation to claim that we are the lone victims of hardship, or that one of the other groups within the institution is to blame for pain caused by Covid is toxic. It is not conducive to navigating complexity, it doesn’t address the diversity of need, it doesn’t stimulate innovation. It just creates internal divides and barriers to a way forward.

United backs

At a time when the understanding of, support for and investment into universities and students by government is not as sustained and comprehensive as we might like, we would be better avoiding criticising institutional stakeholders or putting up barriers between us.

When we do so, we play into a media narrative of universities being self-serving and self interested. If we want to demand changes to a broken funding system (where students feel burdened with unreasonable debt, institutions feel vulnerable to Augar shifts and the public feel they are unreasonably subsidising universities) we may need a more collaborative and cohesive articulation of the UK higher education economic challenge.

If we want to address long standing issues exacerbated by Covid like mental health, housing and social inequality we will need to find new ways of working together and a mutual understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist for our students and staff.

So when I call for solidarity and shared solutions, this moves beyond late night tweets trying to grab some likes, broad promises of partnership working, and a move towards a genuinely shared route map back from Covid – and toward something that shares responsibility, deals with some of the conflicts and addresses the real issues.

To get there, we’ll need considerable empathy. And from my point of view, that will probably need to include an acknowledgement – that where students reasonably believed that the year would include more than online lectures, feel they’ve developed and learned less than they wanted to, and took out rental contracts for housing they never needed, they’ll reasonably feel let down and frustrated. Listening, understanding and acting on that information will help. Top trumps whataboutery won’t.

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