By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of Glasgow
The COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that we have all become proficient in language and terminology that would have been alien to most only a few months ago. Terms like furlough and social distancing have entered everyday use, and most people are newly familiar with acronyms like SAGE and PPE. The R number is the subject of serious public debate, while the all-important distinction between a face mask and a face covering is now well understood.
Now, more than ever, those in government, the media and the general public know that precise use, and understanding, of language is crucial. But there remains one area in which the lazy use of language is all too prevalent.
Like many colleagues across the Higher Education sector, I’ve been disappointed and somewhat confused by the common references in the media to universities being ‘closed’ or hoping to ‘reopen’ in September. For the many staff who are working round the clock to ensure we continue to provide the service our students expect from us, it will also have been slightly insulting.
At my own institution, I’ve been incredibly proud to see how our teaching, research, professional services and support staff have pulled together to keep our University functioning in unprecedented times.
Since the country went into lockdown, our teaching staff have gone above and beyond to ensure our students continue to receive the first-class education they deserve – ensuring materials are available to students online, taking part in virtual lectures and seminars and successfully designing and running with just a few weeks notice our first-ever online exam diet.
With partners in universities across the country, our Centre for Virus Research is undertaking genuinely world-leading work to advance our understanding of COVID-19 – as well as supporting, through clinical trials, the important steps towards treatments for the disease using repurposed drugs, and new vaccines. And it has been our privilege to lead the Glasgow Lighthouse Lab, which is using University of Glasgow staff and facilities to test thousands of people for COVID-19 every day.
But it’s not just our teaching or research that has continued. We are acutely aware that the current generation of young people getting ready to leave school are facing possibly the most precarious labour market any of us have ever known – and we are determined to ensure as many young people as possible get the opportunity of a world-class university education, regardless of their background.
To that end, our fantastic Widening Participation team run a series of programmes over the summer to offer a route into university for young people who have historically been underrepresented – including those from economically deprived areas, who are care experienced, living without family support, have asylum seeker status or are a refugee.
But far from seeing the current crisis as an excuse to resile from our commitments we are in fact doubling our efforts. This year more than 900 potential students will take part in our Summer School, after a monumental effort from our staff to move the course online, which is more than double the attendance from 2019.
These are just some of the vital activities that are currently ongoing at my own institution – and universities across the UK will be able to share similar stories. Colleagues at all levels across all institutions are working harder than ever to ensure that the huge educational, economic and social benefits our universities deliver to communities right across the country continue in these unprecedented circumstances. As a country we owe each and every one of them a huge debt of gratitude.
And the work is only just beginning, as our universities like other sectors, work towards our ‘new normal’ in the aftermath of the pandemic, with many innovative approaches to blended learning being pioneered by colleagues across the country.
Of course, this is probably the most challenging time for our universities in living memory, but I think it is clear that we have so far risen to the challenge – providing a quality education for our students, undertaking world-leading research and continuing to be economic and social hubs for the communities we serve.
There will be further challenging times to come, and the sector will need the support of government if it is to continue to lead the world. But the first step is to recognise the extraordinary work that is already ongoing, up and down the country.
If anyone thinks universities are closed, I would simply urge them to open their eyes.