When I was 18, I registered to attend a university open day. I travelled across London to get there, but having missed a stop on the train, I arrived a bit late. To this day, I’ve never actually been on or around that particular university’s campus.
I remember at the time feeling a bit awkward and out of place – imagining that it would be a great insult to arrive late, so it felt best to not turn up at all. Feeling unsure, I just sort of did a circuit of the campus perimeter, grabbed a coffee, and headed back home.
Fortunately, I did eventually make it to a university. And then on my first day of proper lectures, I couldn’t find the room. The lecture hall was named after someone long dead who I’d never heard of, and so I wandered around a bit until I eventually happened upon it.
Being 20 minutes late, the same feelings struck – I didn’t want to be singled out and chastised for turning up late, so I concluded it would be best I miss the whole session, grab a coffee, and wait for the next class.
First in family
It is probably important to note here this initial lack of confidence was maybe in part because I am what is now phrased as a “first gen” – I come from a working-class family. These early experiences, at least for me, reflect what it’s like to feel you’re somewhere that you’re not really meant to be.
My older brother and I were joint-first in our family to go to university, and higher education was not really natural stomping ground for us working class people. Sure, university is open to all, but between the imposing names of lecture theatres and the rules of engagement which it appears some students know and others (like 18-year-old me) do not, it may be open but not always welcoming.
Despite this, I have never left the academy, and I still feel a relative outsider. Even though I am now a professor, I still think of myself as a working class academic. This is because the field is largely dominated by people with whom I share relatively few life experiences or cultural reference points.
None of this is new. We now openly acknowledge across our sector that we have problems of structural inequality. Whether talking about the various awarding gaps – racial or otherwise – or the way in which we support students with additional learning needs, there is a fast-growing recognition and acceptance that we need to up our game as a sector and do better by our students. This open acknowledgement is at least a positive sign of change.
Then Covid-19 happened.
Managing (in) a crisis
Across our sector, dedicated staff from all parts of every institution have applied themselves to ensuring that the last academic year could be successfully concluded. “No Detriment” policies were just as important as the rapid shifts to online lectures and seminars. We all hope we got it as right as we could.
And now we find ourselves in the midst of final planning for the coming academic year. Surely, with a few months head start, things will be better – more well-organised, more sophisticated and polished – than they may have been when we were all really just crisis managing? For my part, I’m quite confident that they will.
In broad terms, I think the entire student experience will be better. We are all now more confident in the use of various digital platforms, local and institutional plans for on-campus and online teaching – and the ratio of each – is being mapped out with care. Most course teams will start this year in a much better position than they were when we went into lockdown (albeit feeling, no doubt, more than a little exhausted by it all).
More than that, where campuses are reopening, they’ll be doing so safely. Notwithstanding the lack of specific guidance and support for universities at a national level, risk assessments are being completed, PPE is being stockpiled, safe room and building capacities are being modelled. Boards of Governors across the sector will be scrutinising plans and assuring themselves that what their institution plans to do is as safe as possible.
It won’t be the same for everyone
But what, then, of 18-year-old me, stood outside a Covid-safe campus? For those students who come to university on the first day feeling they’re an outsider – and for reasons they may not even be fully able to articulate in terms of class, race, or structural inequality – how will this all feel? Unfortunately, I’d wager that our best laid plans and intentions may alienate these students, and make it harder for them to feel a part of our community. But why?
Blended learning, for all its merits, puts greater emphasis on self-directed learning and confidence which are not equally distributed amongst our students, or society at large. The art of being a good teacher, where you get to know your students, you spot those who seem uncomfortable, and slowly try to bring them in – over weeks and months – to the conversations that happen in class, is not easily replicable in the sterile confines of an MS Teams/Zoom conference call.
Issues of digital poverty will compound this inequality of experience and access – even if we can send you a laptop, what if a reliable internet connection is your problem? Are you living in cramped accommodation? Would you feel ashamed about turning on your camera and letting others see inside your home if they’re all in well-equipped home offices and you’re still sharing a bunkbed with a younger sibling?
Strict policies around campus use and access – only the most essential teaching happening on site, implicitly or explicitly encouraging students to avoid coming on site unless it is absolutely necessary (please solve for the value of necessary) – will certainly help us minimise the spread of the virus, and avoid local outbreaks. But in the long term, what will we have done to offset the impact of these rules on students for whom such restrictions amount to more than just a set of safe, sensible precautions?
As a young student, it was the personal connections I made with my peers, my academic tutors, and the administrators who supported our course, that made a difference. Having staff take an interest in your ideas and personal development makes you feel part of the group, and for me that “distributed mentoring” at the early stages of my time at university helped me feel far more at ease in myself, even before I had any strong connection to individual supervisors, personal tutors, or mentors.
Far from being the great social leveller some might have assumed at the start, the pandemic has only served to magnify deep rooted social inequalities. This has happened, in part, because we’ve not been able to protect people equally – society needed some people to continue working, despite the risks, because working from home was never an option.
Within higher education, I’d go so far as to say that our relatively privileged position in society has led us to determine that safety first is key. And while it is hard to disagree with the principle, we cannot and must not be blind to its consequences.