The Student speaks to Vice-Principal Colm Harmon

Although having worked at the University of Edinburgh in his role as Vice-Principal Students since October 2019, many students have come to know Professor Harmon from the e-mail updates that he has frequently sent to students this year. 

Reflecting on what has been an undoubtedly difficult year for staff and students alike, Colm recognised that there were “many things we could have done better… there always are”. 

Nonetheless he was keen to stress that “the efforts of the University were always towards doing the best we can, within the rules, but with as much partnership as we could have from the students too”, adding that there were not many things that the university had failed to plan for or had tried to work through. 

The unpredictable nature of the pandemic and ever-changing restrictions hampered the university’s ability to plan ahead and implement systems to mitigate the effects of new rules. 

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Speaking about the precarious position the country found itself in at Christmas, with rising cases and hospitals in danger of being overwhelmed, and the UK government’s subsequent decision to plunge the country into another lockdown, Colm said: 

“We had to work with extraordinary constraints. That is not an excuse – but I think it is worth saying.” 

“We broke for holidays on Friday 18 December with all our plans in place for Semester 2…on the evening of the 19th these plans simply evaporated as the lockdown was signalled.   Everyone was back in planning things on Monday morning…by Wednesday those plans were also kaput.   We reconvened between Christmas and new year to have another go…and again these changed.”

Professor Harmon told The Student that one of the toughest things for him this semester was having to email students on 21 January to say that – with a few small exceptions – all teaching would remain online for the rest of the semester. 

He added that: 

“The area I feel that I got most wrong was in underestimating how much the rules defining a household would have such an impact on student life. 

“This year, your household became the world you inhabited.   The norms of social life – being in classes, bonding with peers, having coffee or a beer to chat about the day, but with the people you befriend – that became so much harder.”

With the implementation of a new lockdown across the UK on 4 January 2021, over 10,000 University of Edinburgh students signed a petition calling for the instatement of a ‘no detriment’ policy for final year students. 

The university declined to implement such a policy, opting instead for a package of measures to mitigate the impact of the new lockdown. 

Professor Harmon was part of a discussion with other Russell Group universities about the ‘no detriment’ policy and defended the university’s decision to reject it. 

“We have our fair assessment strategy now in place, and we could have chosen to call it lots of things like safety net or whatever – what is important is that we discussed this as a sector and decided that it was vital to not do anything that could risk branding you as a Covid generation, but also vital to try to ensure that you had trust in our assessment plans and especially how to deal with the shock of the pandemic.” 

“I think we have a very comprehensive assessment plan, all using normal processes but reflecting the very abnormal period we are in.” 

At the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year, the university instigated a ‘hybrid learning’ system whereby some elements of teaching were held in-person and some online. 

Despite this, an investigation by The Student found that many students felt that the ‘hybrid learning’ system has been mis-represented. They had arrived in Edinburgh in September 2020 expecting some in-person teaching, only to find that everything was online. 

Whilst he accepted that some students hadn’t received any in-person teaching at all, Colm disagreed that the system had been falsely advertised to students. 

“What was essential is that we gave each school the control over designing how to deliver the academic year against huge constraints especially on estates capacity. Across the semester about one-third of our teaching was in-person.  I know that we, in fact, delivered more in-person teaching than many other universities but they tended to have it more evenly spread out.   

“For Edinburgh, what was true is that the amount was variable by school. That did create some problems, as depending on course choices some students had almost no teaching in person.” 

Looking ahead to the next academic year and the easing of current lockdown restrictions as a result of a successful vaccine rollout, Professor Harmon couldn’t guarantee that all students will receive at least one contact hour per week of in-person teaching. 

“We have no changes in guidance as of now for what the government thinks about the big issues that impact on that – social distancing being the key one.  We have lots of positive news – but no change in the rules in Scotland or the rest of the UK.” 

“But where we are now does suggest that we can start the process of bringing the university back to life in a more coherent way.  I would think that the biggest challenge will be large class teaching – how we bring together several hundred students in one place will be very difficult despite all the positive news right now.

“So this is my biggest planning concern. I desperately want to see students back in practical space. My feeling is that we will see more in-person teaching where a class is medium sized and can then fit into bigger spaces. For the large classes we will see hybrid delivery – lectures digital [and] classes in-person. But right now I can’t guarantee and I don’t think we will have certainty for a little while longer.” 

This year has also had a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of students across the country, with an Office for National Statistics survey finding that 57 per cent of students feel that their mental health has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic. 

Professor Harmon acknowledged that this was an area that he deemed “critical” for the university to improve in. 

“In some ways it is hard to imagine the stress of this year, and how it will impact on things next year, but it is vital that we recognise that mental health issues for our students is a real thing, something we really need to own and support.

“This is a breakthrough in my opinion…seeing mental health support as part of the key elements of student support, just as if it was about choosing a particular subject.” 

“Student well-being is also key to our plans around student support and the personal tutor system, moving to a model over the next couple of years that will bring that well-being support closer to the school where the student is primarily based.”

Professor Harmon was keen to stress how much he has appreciated the support students had given the university in following guidelines and making sacrifices. 

“Your understanding of these changes, and working with us, has been incredible.” 

“Speaking of being proud, I was also amazed to see on social media how despite the pandemic students made their way in life. They got on with it, finding ways to make the most of things.

“I have been also exceptionally proud of my colleagues – from those working with you day to day in our halls, to those keeping everything going in the estate, to our library and IT staff, and to our school academic and professional staff. They went above and beyond.” 

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