The birds are singing, the sun shining and flowers are poking through the soil; suddenly we are in the second half of what has actually started to feel like the spring term. Even better, university teachers can dare to dream of once more accidentally writing on a whiteboard with permanent marker. Many have been expressing their deep yearning to get back into the seminar room. What about our students? They want to be on campus too, of course – but not necessarily for the same reasons.
Think back to your school or university days. What are your fondest memories? My guess is that you are not reminiscing about a lecture. Formal contact hours are typically only a small portion of time spent at university. For me, my sharpest campus memories are heated discussions about the failures of capitalism and the inevitability of nuclear war, hazily mingled with badly kept keg beer and the fog of Gitanes, or the night my band played a gig on the fourth floor of the student union.
What has been the equivalent of out-of-classroom experience for the past year? Nothing much. While academics have rightly taken every opportunity to express our outrage at the suggestion that universities have been closed, we cannot claim that we have been open for business as usual. We have tried our hardest to offer a version of what the students have every right to expect. Sure, we have been teaching in our pyjama bottoms more often than we normally do, but we have worked ourselves to the bone to educate, educate, educate. Even if, strictly, the universities never closed, our campuses have been off-limits for much of the year and, as a result, universities have had to strip back to the essentials.
In most cases this has meant focusing efforts on formal teaching and learning, while trying to manage testing, isolation, and direct support for students who need it. When face-to-face teaching has been possible, it has largely been in masked, socially distanced, small groups, with an online option for those not in the room. This term, for the vast majority of students, has been online all the way. Many have remained in their family home, but a good number have travelled to their university town, preferring to Zoom in a house with other students rather than their childhood bedroom. I will not speculate on how many times lockdown regulations have been breached, but no student will have had anything like the life they were expecting when they filled in their Ucas form.
There’s is no pretending this has not been a genuine loss. Can anything be done to make up for it? Final-year students will be out in the world in a few months’ time. Will they spring off and get on with the next stage of their lives, or will they mourn their last 18 months? I have heard that many postgraduate courses are experiencing record numbers of applications for next year. These always go up when the graduate job market shrinks, but also I am sure that many final-year students do not feel they are done with university, and want another go.
What is in store for those coming back next year? It is difficult to think of a time when the near future has been so uncertain. Will the virus escape the vaccines, or will we, fingers crossed, escape the virus? Another academic year like this one is too awful to contemplate. Will we go back to those innocent days where people crammed into lecture theatres, not to mention student bars and parties, with what now looks like criminal negligence? What were once everyday routines will, for a while at least, be charged with new symbolism of gross recklessness or defiance. I can issue no predictions about next year’s student behaviour. But I just can’t wait to find out.