Autumn is traditionally a time of new beginnings in education and this is particularly true in autumn 2021 as we all emerge from our home offices, blinking in the daylight and contemplating returning to that commute with trepidation.
Many Education Outreach Officers are desperate to re-enter the real world and perform in front of live audiences once again. Gregarious creatures by nature, we crave that face-to-face interaction we have been deprived of for so long. However, some are a little more wary – if a job had been designed specifically to contract viruses it would be one that involved traipsing in and out of schools and colleges full of unvaccinated, unmasked, “socially active” teenagers.
So how are Higher Education Providers responding to this brave new world? As with most things, the answer isn’t straightforward and everyone seems to be approaching things differently.
Approaches to returning to the office are many and varied. Some institutions have had all staff return to campus with no social distancing or masks required, but this is a rare occurrence. Most have some form of hybrid working arrangement, whether this is a few days per week in the office or alternate weeks in. Some Education Liaison teams are working in schools and colleges but returning home afterwards due to risk of contamination from schools.
Some have not returned at all yet, in some cases because their offices are no longer fit to work in, or have been “repurposed” in their absence! Longer term, it is envisaged that a hybrid approach will be popular, with working from home for at least part of the week becoming the new normal.
HEPs are reporting a large number of requests for face-to-face events, particularly careers fairs, probably because the virtual fairs didn’t work particularly well. Conversely, presentations and personal statement advice are still being requested and delivered virtually in some cases. Overall though, there seems to be a voracious appetite for face-to-face activity, this comes through strongly in various surveys that have been undertaken (e.g. Uni Taster Days) and from direct feedback from teachers and advisers.
Some school and college events visited recently have been ‘back to normal’, with crowds and queues in fairs and few wearing masks. Wearing a mask when interacting with students brings its own issues particularly with communication.
As a parent of a year 13 student, I have first-hand experience of trying to book Open Days this term, and again, the picture is very mixed. Many HEPs, particularly those at the more selective end of the market, are simply not offering “real life” on campus Open Days this autumn. Some are offering Student Ambassador led campus tours, some are offering self-led, app based campus tours and some are offering virtual, online Open Days only.
Those that are holding on campus Open Days have generally made some modifications; for example, avoiding large talks and course information fairs, using more space on campus and discouraging people congregating in one area by spreading the registration areas across campus.
Requests for on campus visit days are building, as teachers are keen for their students to have some real life experience of a university campus. Many HEPs are welcoming groups of prospective students back on to campus, although some have taken the decision to restrict this to post 16 students only for this term, to ensure that those students nearer to the UCAS deadline are prioritised. Some HEPs have chosen to hold off school/college visits altogether, in the short term.
Clearly, all of these different approaches will be confusing for schools, colleges, prospective students and their parents, making a complicated decision even more difficult to navigate than usual. Equally, HEPs need to appreciate that the rules in the schools and colleges that they are visiting will vary significantly, and must be prepared to adapt to the circumstances they are presented with.
On the plus side, things seem to be returning to normal more and more as each day goes by. The pandemic has made us all appreciate the benefits of face-to-face interaction and we can all look forward to the day when “Zoom gloom” is a thing of the past.
Julie Pink , Head of Schools and Colleges Liaison Service, University of Huddersfield