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Universities: Resilience in the face of adversity

by
19 February 2021

University life during the pandemic has not been all bad, thanks to the efforts of students and staff, reports John Gay

University of Chester

Final-year nursing students training at the simulation suite at the University of Chester’s Riverside site, preparing them to work in frontline healthcare environments. The students all volunteered to work with the NHS. More photos in the gallery

Final-year nursing students training at the simulation suite at the University of Chester’s Riverside site, preparing them to work in frontline health...

FOR students, life under Covid has been difficult. Despite early optimism about blending a face-to-face campus experience with online learning, in practice most learning has been virtual.

The hope of a New Year return to campus was dashed by rising infection rates — and the message came: stay at home. No wonder many young people feel that their futures have been mortgaged to protect others.

Yet, despite all the difficulties, many students have risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Having contacted several of the church universities, I was overwhelmed by examples of how students have responded to the needs of others.

For example, at the University of Cumbria, testing centres have been set up on three of their campuses, and both students and staff have been trained to operate them. Others have been volunteering to help the most vulnerable in their communities. Despite the risk involved, students on nursing and paramedical courses have been working in the local hospitals.

Looking to the future, their Vice-Chancellor, Julie Mennell, highlighted the number of their graduates soon to become key workers as paramedics, police officers, youth workers, teachers, nurses, and allied health professionals.

Canterbury Christ Church University sent 50 examples of ways in which their students and staff have been supporting and volunteering. These included making and writing cards for care-home residents, helping at a hospice, and supporting people who are shielding. Group activities included delivering food to the vulnerable. The university has made its facilities, resources, and staffing expertise more widely available.

The University of Chester brought together the many initiatives taken by its staff and students into a website, Standing up to Coronavirus. It is an excellent way of hearing at first hand from the participants, and is accessible at www.1.chester.ac.uk/standing-up.

 

FOR Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, where 40 per cent of the students are trainee primary-school teachers, the main challenge was to enable them to complete their school placements. That it was successful was due largely to the quality of the school partnerships built up with heads and teachers, who went the extra mile to see the students through.

University of ChesterKabale Oke (right in photo), studying human nutrition, and Alice Murrill (nutrition and dietetics) filming one of the Chester Healthy Eating Workshops (CHEW), a student-led volunteering project at the University of Chester, working with organisations supporting the city’s homeless population and those in crisis

Student initiatives included using the 3D printer to make face shields for front-line care staff, and donating all the Student Union food stock to the emergency services.

Working with York St John University, research staff at Bishop Grosseteste are exploring the impact of Covid on personal and societal resilience, and on the part played by the churches in promoting well-being. Led by Professor Leslie Francis, key to the research is the Church Times survey (News, 22 January).

 

KEEPING their universities afloat has caused senior managements many headaches. Inevitably, students and staff want clarity about what will happen next. Central advice and requirements have often been last-minute, and sometimes confusing.

Take New Year’s Eve, when the announcement came that nursing, education, social work, and physiotherapy students should return to campus. Given that 20 per cent of all church university students are studying education, there was much hasty bag-packing.

University of ChesterSophie West (white mask) and Rosa Hinchcliffe, who share the same accommodation bubble, with Lara, part of the Student Dog Walking Project organised by the University of Chester. The project helps both owners who are either elderly or ill and struggle to exercise their dogs and students, who take outdoor exercise and might be missing family pets

On 5 January, the list was expanded further. Two days later, however, it was shrunk again, and education was restricted to teacher-training only. Much bag-unpacking, and teaching plans radically changed. Perhaps stop-start-stop-start is inevitable, but it certainly disrupts student education and makes forward planning very difficult.

One way in which universities have been coping is by issuing clear and detailed information as soon as it is available. This usually includes the number of Covid infections linked to the university, how the university plans to implement the latest government requirements, how to get help and advice, what to do if you catch Covid, how coursework and assessments will be handled, and who can return to campus and when.

It is a great support for students and staff when their senior management is visible and able to deal positively with all the uncertainties.

 

ONE of the biggest challenges has been the rapid switch from face-to-face teaching through tutorials, seminars, and lectures to working remotely through virtual environments. This has been a steep learning curve for staff, albeit much less so for students, most of whom have long been adept at such skills. Already much is being done to improve the quality of the virtual experience; for the future will be a blend of the face-to-face and the virtual, drawing, it is hoped, on the best of each.

One group drawing on the benefits of the virtual has been the university chaplains. The Churches HE Liaison Group has run three webinars bringing chaplains together, with a focus on pooling their current experiences. A further initiative, managed by the Revd Dr Stephen Heap for the Free Churches HE group, has run chaplains’ webinars on student mental-health, providing online worship, and the most effective ways of communicating the value of university chaplaincy.

Canterbury Christ Church UniversitySupplies of PPE provided by Canterbury Christ Church University early in the pandemic

The international body Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion (CUAC) had to cancel its 2020 London triennial. The organiser, the Revd Dr Jeremy Law, of Canterbury Christ Church University, was not going to be beaten, however, especially as the triennial’s theme was “Saved by Technology”. The conference was moved online, with the benefit that those who were unable to afford the original conference, especially if coming from overseas, were able take part.

Encouraged by this first success, a virtual seminar was held in November: “Navigating Covid: Six CUAC voices from six continents”. The University of Chester’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Eunice Simmons, was the European voice. Having been in post for less than a year, she had been pitched straight into dealing with Covid, besides planning for Chester’s future.

How to build meaningful community in an increasingly virtual world so that the interactive benefits of both are realised was the challenge underlying her presentation. And she was clear that there was a moral imperative to succeed. Both events are accessible at cuac.anglicancommunion.org.

The growth of the virtual, especially as a way of enhancing meaningful community in and around universities, both nationally and globally, will be one of the silver linings to the Covid cloud. This will benefit future generations of students — which is fine, as long as the disruption experienced by the current students is not forgotten. They must not become a lost generation.

 

The Revd Dr John Gay is an Honorary Research Fellow in Education at the University of Oxford, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester.

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