There is much uncertainty in the Higher Education sector at present about what the start of new academic year might hold in store. After an unprecedented 18-month period of educational disruption, what will the fallout be for new and returning students, as well as the teams of academic and professional services staff dedicated to ensuring their smooth transition and subsequent success? The pandemic has impacted in very disproportionate ways with some of our least advantaged students being the hardest hit in terms of missed educational opportunities. I know I have heard plenty of colleagues musing on the potential of all of this to result in deficits in skills, knowledge, mental health and wellbeing and the need to have remedial provision in place to ensure early identification and rapid intervention in response. It certainly makes good sense to plan for the worst and so we are working very hard to ensure our new and returning students get all the support and guidance they need.
I would like to make a case for a more appreciative perspective to sit alongside the disaster preparedness planning though. The sector has certainly been through a tottering time but a huge amount of learning and rethinking has emerged from the adversity. More blended approaches to learning and teaching, rethinking modes of assessment and serious discussions on more inclusive ways of working are just three areas where there have been great leaps forward, which many students will benefit from next year. The change may have been forced upon us and at times the response was not always pretty but we have still come a very long way in a very short space of time. The challenge now will be to hang onto, and then build on those pedagogic and curricular enhancements.
Nor should we be too quick to assume that all our new and returning students will be suffering from some sort of COVID related shell shock. Yes, it has been a very challenging year but come September our institutions will become filled with students who have surmounted those challenges just to get to us. We know that where the conditions (i.e. family, carers, peers and communities) help to foster them, there are positive associations between certain dispositions and behaviours (e.g. resilience, growth mind-set, agency, self-compassion, mindfulness) and student outcomes (Egan et al, 2021). Just how resilient, flexible, determined, clever and emotionally savvy must our students have been over the past 12-months in order to be able to join or re-join us this autumn? It seems like an excellent foundation upon which to build and learn to me.
At this year’s Welcome fairs therefore, before we race to bombard our students with directions to the study skills support and the counselling services perhaps we could set aside a bit of time first to celebrate our and our students’ remarkable achievements over the year just ending, without which none of us would be there.
Prof. Mark O’Hara is Associate Dean (Student Learning Experience & Quality) in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences at Birmingham City University. His interests include widening participation in Higher Education, inclusive practice, innovation in learning and teaching and student feedback.
Photo: Nolan Simmons
Egan H., O’Hara M., Cook A. & Mantzios M. (2021) Mindfulness, self-compassion, resiliency and wellbeing in Higher Education: A recipe to increase academic performance. Innovative Higher Education. Journal of Further & Higher Education, Vol. No. : https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2021.1912306