How has the lockdown affected our universities?
The last few weeks have obviously seen a change in how Universities have been working, or indeed how they have been able to work, but working they have been…
In the days leading up to the ‘lockdown,’ much focus was on ensuring that students could continue to access the learning they needed to complete this academic year. The last few weeks of the teaching semester have moved online. We commonly record our lectures anyway, but teaching online is more than just providing an audio file to accompany a set of PowerPoint slides – and it is the important interactive elements of our learning support that led to many staff doing a bit of a crash course in various online platforms towards the end of March.
Universities have also been putting things in place to ensure students can get the marks they need to progress through their degrees, or, most importantly for final-year students, graduate with a degree result that is a fair reflection of their efforts. Graduation ceremonies themselves have been postponed but there’ll be little delay in final year students getting their degrees. Some have even already graduated, as you may have seen recently on BBCs The One Show, some University of Nottingham final-year medical students graduated early this year so they could start supporting NHS work immediately. A heartfelt round of applause to them, in particular, this week along with the final-year student nurses who have signed up for extended placements at this particularly challenging time.
The move to a more virtual world has not stopped research across the University either, although in large parts of it there has been a shift to writing up work rather than doing new experiments, or a (re) new(ed) focus on desk-based work. Most of the University’s laboratories cannot be accessed at the moment, and travel restrictions have also paused some research programmes. Many of us have research networks across the UK and overseas and meeting these colleagues has now become a similar experience to meetings with people in our own department. There’s been a debate for some time in my own academic circles about how much we should be travelling anyway, given short- and longer-term environmental impacts of international travel. The coming months will see an increase in online workshops and conferences and it will be interesting to see how people take to these as an alternative to meeting in person and if behaviours remain changed in a post-COVID-19 world – no doubt someone will be doing some research on that.
Laboratories that have remained open in the University have largely been those that have been working on COVID-19 related work, for example as part of a national effort to understand the genetic code of the virus. Equipment from both Nottingham universities was also loaned, early on in the shutdown, to the national testing effort. About £1 million worth of Nottingham PCR machines are now in the new Lighthouse Laboratories being used for running COVID-19 tests.
As we settle down into the rest of this academic year with a clear plan of what we are doing (and a big thanks to those colleagues who put in significant shifts to ensure those plans were in place), thoughts also turn to next year. Our big sisters and brothers in the national press have been speculating and reporting on concerns for university finances over the coming months, the sector will likely be hit substantially along with many others. We also wait and see if Freshers’ Weeks in the autumn are likely to be seen as a good idea, or if we’ll still be operating largely virtually for the new academic year. As with us all, we’ll just wait and see on those things and in the meantime keep supporting each other and others as best we can.