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17 December 2020

A student's perspective of 2020


Alexander Hedlund
Vice-President Education at Heriot-Watt University Students' Union and Enhancement Theme Student Lead


In this blog, Alexander Hedlund, Vice-President Education at Heriot-Watt University Students’ Union and member of the QAA Scotland Strategic Advisory Committee, shares his reflections on 2020.

A year like no other. A phrase we’ve all heard time and time again but never ceases to ring true. We’ve had our ups and our downs, and our really downs, but finally this rollercoaster of a year is coming to an end. As we say farewell to 2020 on a high note with a potential end to COVID-19 in sight, it’s worth looking back at just how incredibly far we’ve come as a sector.

Starting from Panicgogy

It seems like only yesterday, and yet so long ago, that we rapidly shifted our ways of working and teaching in response to COVID-19. So dawned the era of Panicgogy. Across the country, we saw universities adapting in their own ways to finish out the semester and assess students as safely and best as they could. Most importantly, we saw universities putting their students first by adopting 'no detriment' policies that fit their institution and drew on QAA's emergency guidance. We had successes and we had failures, and from that we learned hard yet valuable lessons on the challenges of online working that have shaped each institution’s design for this most recent semester.

Improving institutional working

Before we could even catch our breath, it seems, we were in the heat of planning for the new 2020-21 academic year. We saw universities creating new committees tasked with the behemoth burden of designing a brand-new mode of delivery for students learning in such exceptional circumstances. These committees saw partnership working excel as the expertise of sabbatical officers was drawn on to ensure any plans would work to the full benefit of students. Where this partnership working was central, we’ve seen successful practices developed and implemented. Moreover, bringing together key decision-makers at the same table more regularly than our typical bureaucratic processes, has meant more responsiveness and flexibility from institutions that will be crucial to maintain post-Covid. The rapidly changing environment the higher education landscape lives in doesn’t exist only in this pandemic - we must be constantly able to adapt and change our ways of working to be truly future-ready.

Uniting as a sector

Beyond the internal benefits of this paradigm shift in pedagogy, the sector has shown a united front in its adaptation to Covid-19. With nearly everyone seemingly starting from scratch, developing their new online delivery, collaboration between institutions has been paramount, as has the QAA guidance on designing digital learning. We’ve banded together in a way that highlights the essence of what the Scottish Enhancement Themes is about - we cannot enhance the student experience in silo, we must work together and learn from each other if we are to be successful. Some have relied on existing connections and some have built new bridges; whichever you’ve experienced I hope you keep those relationships going in the new normal.

This collaboration would not have been possible without the removal of barriers that online working has provided. The ability to instantaneously connect with staff at other institutions, from the comfort of our homes, has meant that we can deliver things faster and more informed by best practice. Online events have allowed us to attend where we may have previously had to book whole days off, allowing more effective use of time and the ability to immediately draw on what we learn. The June and November Enhancement Themes Conferences saw massive success with attendees and presenters coming from far and wide, sharing their own experiences and prompting stimulating discussions. Despite its challenges, online working has been beneficial to the sector.

Safeguarding students

Amid the ever-changing guidance on higher education activity from the Scottish government, we’ve seen universities safeguarding their students against this virus. An incredibly diverse range of offerings have cropped up across the sector, with each institution self-tailoring their delivery to suit its needs. With practical courses adapting to social distancing guidelines, hybrid modes of face-to-face and online, and even some programmes being solely online, the level of thought and detail that has gone into ensuring students are safe in these times is admirable. Universities have truly taken onboard the duty of care they hold to their students.

Partnership working thriving

Coming back to partnership working, it is clear now, more than ever, that developing working relationships with representatives and looking to them for guidance on plans is crucial to providing a world-leading student experience. To be at the vanguard of higher education, we must draw on the experience of students to develop our offerings in a way that best resonates with our key stakeholders. We have seen stronger relationships built as universities rely heavily on the direction of representatives to guide us in these uncharted waters, but let us not lose these connections and instead maintain them to their fullest extent in whatever the future holds.

Last but not least, the student movement

It hasn’t just been staff that have collaborated and worked together so well over these past months, the student movement has made incredible strides banding together and advocating for our students at a national level. From the #NotStayingNotPaying campaign aimed at predatory purpose-built student accommodations (PBSAs) at the start of lockdown, to its voice in the issues related to the SQA and A-levels results, and its ongoing fight for students amid the pandemic, we’ve rallied together to represent our students. We’ve fought hard to raise awareness of the mental health crisis facing students and even secured £1.32m additional funding for mental health support for students. With the conversation focused on digital poverty at the start of the semester, the student movement secured £5m in funds to increase digital inclusion. Recently announced, student associations in Scotland will receive £750k in funding to support students. It’s safe to say both staff and students have been working incredibly hard together to make the best of the unfortunate situation.

Reflecting and looking forward

So, with the challenges we’ve overcome in mind and the massive successes we’ve seen across the sector, I don’t know about you but I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store for us. For now, take the time to reflect on what you’re most proud of achieving and what you would most like to see come from the New Year. Let’s hope Mother Nature doesn’t have any more curveballs to throw our way.

Enjoy your well-deserved breaks and we’ll see you all fresh and renewed to welcome in 2021!