Adaptation & Renewal: Students

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Colm Harmon, Vice-Principal Students and Project Lead for the Students work stream of Adaptation and Renewal, talks through how the University has had to navigate the past few months in regards to our students.

The Students work stream has progressed at pace over the last two months, reflecting the incredible efforts of colleagues across the University in meeting the challenge of getting things off the ground in the next academic year, in a way that is creative and reflecting the best tradition of the University but is also mindful, and where necessary cautious, in respect to the safety of our students and staff and in ensuring we are ready to meet all that the world might throw at us.

The Student work stream is focused on three core areas – recruitment, admissions and the transition to University (led by James Smith, Vice-Principal International); delivering our curriculum in a resilient and robust way (led by Tracey Slaven, Deputy Secretary Strategic Planning); and ensuring our student support is prepared but also focused on the future (led by Gavin Douglas, Deputy Secretary Student Experience). A group of more than 40 colleagues from across the University are giving a lot of time and focus to helping us with the issues and identifying the challenges on the ground in what I call our ‘critical friends’ group. Good dialogue with colleagues representing the staff and student unions has been invaluable to keeping the work connected to the challenges – and in ensuring that I get a ’no holds barred’ view of what is going on which I welcome, always.

A lot of the work of the strand has been focused on connecting with colleagues in front-line teaching and support roles so that we could identify and address blockages in how things work and ensure that we can work through these issues and find solutions that can work for the situation now, but also with an eye on how it might work better in the long term.

A good example of this related to addressing the challenges of dealing with international applications where the students were unable to complete an english language test, or in the case of US applicants were not able to rely on high school ‘SAT’ scores – so we worked hard to get alternative mechanisms in place to deal with these applicants. We have had to address – and readdress – the advice and policy we adopt for students facing mandatory international exchange in a very troubled time. There are also far more robust communications plans in place – for new students, returning students and now reflecting particular student cohorts – across multiple platforms. Our focus on student support systems is managing, amongst many issues, the impact of changing government advice on critical areas such as timetable planning and on how we plan for exams – but also on how graduations will run digitally and how the social and support aspects of student life will evolve. With our plans for the delivery of teaching, the Student work stream has put in place a strong and consultative process to move us from a state of lockdown in late March through to the active planning of delivering our teaching against extraordinary constraints in September (or, indeed, earlier in some cases).

On the radar now is a range of issues that might be seen as the ‘pointy end’ of the planning for the academic year. How do we translate strong demand from prospective students into new students starting on campus (or joining us on campus as soon as they can)? How can we put in place support structures to assist colleagues in creating teaching material? As an aside, the University now has several quality recording studios ready or soon to ready for teaching preparation – just weeks ago, we had one. That is incredible change and at pace.

But changes also throw up new challenges. For example, how can we deal with the changes brought to the University at extraordinary pace even for current priority areas (for example, we must ensure that our strong focus on widening participation adapts to reflect on the challenges of new teaching models, but also adapts to reflect the changing demands these students might face, in, for example, IT needs)?

If there was one dominant focus now, above all the Student work stream is looking to, perhaps in a contradiction, slow down and move things into a clear delivery focus, ensuring that with some 50 days before the start of the academic year we avoid the urge to constantly identify issues and rather take where we are now and make that the basis for getting the year under way. Key in that shift of emphasis is a need to reflect on and react to the pressure colleagues both academic and professional are under, and hope that by turning our faces now to that one goal we can make everything a little less frenetic.

Ultimately the objective of our work is as the University expressed in a recent video for returning students. We have tracked, from the incredible pivot in March, a pathway towards welcoming our students – new and returning – back to campus in September. We have moved in line with the country in that re-opening plan, ensuring careful and constructive alignment between our plans and those of Scotland so that as Edinburgh re-opens so too does the University of Edinburgh.  That one vision – with obvious plans to deal with any bumps we get along the way – has given us a clarity of purpose that has meant that from the time we went into lockdown, emerging and welcoming students in September has been the mission.

The recent Facebook views, by country, on the videos produced for our students.

That sounds simple – or even simplistic – and it hides an extraordinary effort and frankly at times an almost overwhelming set of tasks; both in Adaptation and Renewal and across the University But it is the right thing to do – because it is what we do best as a University. We will get it wrong sometimes. It won’t go as smoothly as we might think, and in many ways it is important to acknowledge that, because we must never take the blame when something does not go to plan, when that something is so ambitious and so focused on doing the best for our students. I know it won’t take away the strain we are under – but I think we should be exceptionally proud of where we are and where we are going, and I am very grateful.

Images: Douglas Robertson; bamlou/GettyImages