As current students begin to return to campus and new first-year students move into halls of residence this week, The Student sat down with Professor Colm Harmon, Vice Principal Students at the University of Edinburgh, to find out what the student experience will look like this year.
Whilst Professor Harmon is keen to emphasise that there will be “lots more teaching on campus overall”, he is nonetheless pragmatic about the restraints that the ongoing pandemic imposes on in-person teaching.
Although social distancing measures in Scotland were dropped at the beginning of August, Professor Harmon explains that for a while it was unclear exactly what restrictions would remain when university students returned to campus in September. This made planning for the 2021/2022 academic year all the more challenging.
Given the uncertain situation that the university found itself in, the university has decided that all teaching for classes of more than 50 students will take place online to reduce the risk of any large outbreaks of the virus on campus.
“The physical re-opening of spaces on campus is being done in a carefully managed way, so as to minimise the chances of further covid outbreaks, which would once again force closures” Professor Harmon explains.
He adds that “we continue to have a series of government requirements [face coverings and ventilation requirements] to abide by. We place great importance upon these and have a responsibility to keep our students, staff and the wider city community safe.”
Nevertheless, Professor Harmon was able to guarantee that all students would have some form of teaching – most likely smaller tutorials and seminars – in person.
“All students will enjoy some in-person teaching, with a large number having a majority of their teaching delivered on-campus. At this stage, I cannot provide an exact proportion, but all of our staff are working hard to make the learning experience for this semester as good as it possibly can be” he explained.
Recognising that the previous academic year was challenging for all students, Professor Harmon was keen to specifically highlight the difficulties that students who need access to laboratories and other specialist spaces (such as performance and art studios) have faced in this era of hybrid teaching.
“For those who receive teaching in laboratories and in other specialist venues – such as studios and performance spaces – I am very conscious of the difficulties you have faced. These are spaces where we are working hardest to maximise what we can do, over and above our basic planning assumptions.”
Aside from more in-person teaching, students will have a less restricted social experience with clubs and bars fully reopened and a return to unrestricted contact sport.
What has made this normalcy possible?
The success of the vaccine rollout has been key in allowing the government to drop restrictions.
Nonetheless, uptake of the vaccine in the 16-24 year old age category has lagged. In England, only 49.8% of those aged 18-24 are fully vaccinated and in Scotland, the 18-29 percentage rises to 60.3% (as of 14th September 2021).
With that in mind, the university is “urging students in the strongest possible terms to get vaccinated, ideally before they arrive in Edinburgh”.
“Medical experts – including many of our own who have led research into the virus – are united in their opinion that vaccination is the best way to protect both yourself and those around you. It reduces the likelihood of you contracting covid – with all the damage that would cause to your studies – as well as reducing the chances of you needing hospitalisation” Professor Harmon says.
Professor Harmon confirmed that the university is working in partnership with NHS Scotland to provide a vaccination centre on campus from 13 September.
He also added that students will be encouraged to take lateral flow tests twice weekly, with the university providing testing kits to students.
Reflecting on the toll that the uncertainty and stresses of the past 18 months have taken on students’ mental health, Professor Harmon marked supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing as one of the university’s key priorities.
“Students in university accommodation are supported by our Residence Life team, who are there to help you settle in, make connections and start to navigate your new life in Edinburgh. Good mental health and wellbeing is underpinned by positive and supportive relationships – values which the Residence Life team members place particular emphasis on by building a feeling of community through participatory events, hobbies and interests, and learning opportunities” he says.
“Students themselves are key to providing support and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association and Edinburgh University Sports Union together offer a huge variety of activities, events, societies and clubs. These are some of the best ways to make new friends and establish new connections” he adds.
For students that are struggling with their mental health who wish to access specialist advice or treatment, the university has a counselling service which offers one-on-one counselling with experienced staff.
Professor Harmon additionally encouraged students to make use of the university chaplaincy’s listening service, which is available 24/7.
Professor Harmon’s advice for new students
Finally, The Student asked Professor Harmon what advice he would give to new students.
“Stay close to your academic schools. Their staff are your first port of call for everything. Ask for advice, seek answers – we want to help!
“Secondly, if something is not clear, don’t wait around for the fog to clear. Again, ask advice from your lecturer, tutor or student support team” says Professor Harmon.
“Finally, and this is something of a cliché, but have fun! University offers a time in your life which is probably unlike any other, with new experiences, challenges and ideas to be explored.
“That is a wonderful thing and will shape you forever” he concludes.
Image: Flickr – Herve Cortinat/OECD