Students should be partners not passengers in the Covid community recovery

Ben Vulliamy wonders if students could be a real part of the Covid-19 recovery out in our local communities.

Universities everywhere are promoting their “proposition” right now to reassure students that everything will be sort of similar.

But instead of positioning students as passengers in a big Covid-19 dipper carriage, would a wiser proposition be making students a real part of the Covid-19 recovery?

I am based at York – the city where the UK’s first diagnosed case of Covid -19 was identified on 31st January.

That started a journey through the subsequent appearance of the virus in various other cities, the eventual lock down (and its path via Barnard Castle), “staying alert”, track and trace app false starts, schools safety debates to the present day.

Come together

During that time I have watched with pride and admiration the way York’s community – staff, students, employers and the wider locality – have come together to respond to a crisis. And I know we are not unique. The outpouring of emotion, energy, commitment and the desire of students and universities to support our communities has been evident up and down the UK.

For every staff member who volunteered, there were other students, neighbours and friends who clamoured to donate, share, put up rainbows in windows and clap for key workers. Facebook was littered with support groups and advice and ‘covid networks’ or support groups. The volunteers I saw congregating at and supported by York CVS are there in many other cities with thriving voluntary and community sectors.

We’ve seen university and students’ union staff making and distributing sandwiches to local NHS staff. Some have produced and shared PPE to meet the needs of critical services. Others have focussed research to try to find medicines that might help tackle the virus.

Never waste a crisis

It seems that there’s nothing like a crisis to bring about people’s sense of civic and public duty. Some have even suggested that in a hundred years people will talk about “the Covid spirit” much as they reminisce through rose tinted glasses about the blitz war spirit. The way universities and their communities have come together around the pandemic will be a virtue of the last few months that we really should capture and preserve.

Right now everyone is trying to reimagine university life post-pandemic in a way that is both safe and attractive to students. So the community lessons from the past few months cause me to wonder whether we should be positioning students as a central part of the civic response to the virus – imagining students not just as consumers of zoom lectures and socially distanced outdoor marquee events, but also as collaborators and partners in the cities’ and regions’ recovery from Covid-19.

If our new university life actively connects students with their city, sees them linked into the community through volunteering, research, sharing culture and defining and delivering a vision of how the locality can support each other’s new normal that may well be offering a transformative student experience – a transformation for both the student and the community.

Hitting students hard

The recovery from the pandemic will be painful. We know from history that young people are particularly susceptible to the effects of recession that we now face. Young people may be less vulnerable to the virus itself, but they are a significant victim of its social effects, much more so than the older generation. This should stimulate and drive the work of students and our localities. It can focus work on reimagining the employment market to offer sustainable long term jobs with long term personal development and the end of the gig economy to support all young people. It can focus on rebuilding the history and culture of our places and spaces and rebuilding our entire tertiary education system. And this must, genuinely, be about off campus and on campus recovery happening hand in hand.

Too often, we expect our local towns and cities to come to us to enjoy the culture and art that we generate and house within our institution. Too frequently, we identify our own research needs and secure the funding for that research to take place within our own institutions. We identify the jobs we create within our own domain and not those we can generate across our cities, and we are guilty of monitoring and managing our own student accommodation but forget the inter relationship with housing across the places where we exist. To truly engage in a wider societal recovery we need to stimulate our and our whole regions economic and social recovery.

If we can bring students and staff from our places together to engage with the wider communities we can define who we are and our locality’s stake in that institutional identity. We will identify the shared opportunities – like reinvigorating a shared belief in culture, history, social good – and the shared challenge, like navigating some of the inequalities that exist within our communities and our student and staff populations.

A new sort of proposition

Crafting this as a proposition to a prospective students takes us way beyond working out a few socially distanced activities and an online freshers fair – and further into connecting students with young people across our cities. This is about not just sharing the plan to reopen a refectory, but for reopening the hospitality across our cities.

It means reaching beyond the need to maintain jobs on campus but plugging the skills gaps for young people across the city; about supporting not just student mental health and anxiety provoked by the pandemic but wider society’s well being and resilience.

It’s a proposition that can capture the hearts and minds of our returning students and our new intake and directly pull them into the narrative of a wider civic engagement and recovery. They are becoming partners in the way we make history rather than becoming confined to what history did to us. Being civic when times were good was not always easy – but being civic when times are hard is essential, and it’s a piece of work we should consider right now.

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