University Life and Covid-19: Learning in the New Normal

Susan L. Robertson

Dare to cast your mind back to the start of 2020, and at least in the UK, the story which dominated the daily news was BREXIT.  For some of us, this was a – dare I say – disastrous decision fuelled by populist politics, xenophobia and a return to the days of Empire and breast-beating nationalism.  The argument that UK universities had benefitted significantly from its relationship with Europe seemed to hold no sway. Rationality and populism, it seems, live in two different universes.    

Then, as the chimes of Big Ben hailed in the New Year, it was hard to imagine an even bigger storm was brewing that would saturate the airwaves through and through. I am, of course, talking about Covid19; a global pandemic that has, overnight, transformed the traffic-clogged streets of the university city where I work – Cambridge – into lifeless strips of road. A hurrying worker here; an anxious shopper there. The once packed Cambridge train station, of commuting workers, curious tourists, and university students, had emptied overnight. A university and its city was shuttered down overnight, whilst a new social lexicon emerged to manage this tiny dangerous virus: lock-down, social distancing, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and Zoom. Search for Covid19, and Google returns 6 ½ billion hits. Covid19 has pushed BREXIT off the airwaves, at the same time that it plays havoc with the airways of its many victims.  

Life in the pandemic university has transformed beyond belief, and not just in Cambridge, or indeed the UK. Around the world – barely a city, island, country or continent has been spared, and with it their education institutions – from nurseries and schools to higher education institutions. And these are interlinked; finding dependable day-care whilst working or studying in the university enable both institutions to function. Place limits on one of these and the other one falters. 

Many modern and modernising universities are global institutions, welcoming international students and faculty to their campuses and lecture halls. That figure had been projected to double from around five million to ten million over the next five years.  With the movement of people across borders stalled, and air-travel almost halted, universities are having to reimagine what their futures might hold. Countries like Australia and New Zealand, along with the United Kingdom and Canada, enrolled large numbers of full-fee-paying international students, into their undergraduate programmes. Anxious families are likely to ask about health safety and security, and what this might mean for them. 

But this is not just a matter of concern for international students. Those nationally located have similar concerns. What about the student experience? What does learning, mediated by principles of social distancing, look and feel like?  Should I reconsider my options, and wait for the whole thing to blow over? 

Academics are also facing new challenges. How best to run classes on one of the platforms that have emerged as the substitute classroom space? How can we create conversations, and ensure moments of serendipity in these spaces so as to generate the chance encounter, the aha moment, the occasion to glimpse a confused face and realise that saying something differently might help make it a teachable moment? With a year of larger classes destined to be delivered virtually, those universities who have used technology mostly for emails and administration like mine face huge challenges as to how to go on-line from a standstill start.  But for the moment this is the new normal, and the new normal feels set to stay at least for the near future. 

How then do we navigate the future, the known knowns and the known unknowns, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld? How do we find a new language that grasps the many acts of community and solidarity that emerged in our neighbourhoods and wider communities and ensure it survives in the new normal? This means resisting individualising and pathologizing terms, like resilience, or the idea that we can manage the future through diligently managing our risk registers.  If we take anything from this new normal it is that we are profoundly social beings whose futures are uncertain. But we are also curious and creative beings, and this is something that education done well cares about. Let’s nurture and value this as we navigate the ups and downs of our current times.   

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Susan L. Robertson  is Head of Faculty and Professor of Sociology of Education, at the University of Cambridge. Her books include Public Private Partnerships in Education, and Global Regionalisms and Higher Education.  She is founding editor of Globalisation, Societies and Education

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