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Simone Buitendijk argues that fostering strong relationships in higher education is more important than ever

In a few weeks it will be the anniversary of university life being hit by the full force of the Covid-19 crisis. By and large, higher education has pulled through remarkably well.

At the beginning of the lockdown, we put the vast majority of our teaching online and carried on with a substantial amount of our research, where safe and practicable. We partially resumed on-campus activities, such as essential lab research and face-to-face teaching, when that was possible again, but equally quickly went back to being a largely virtual community when government rules demanded it. We have put safety first and, as our second goal, have worked unbelievably hard to provide as much normalcy as possible.

I believe the relative success of our efforts has been to a significant degree due to the meeting of technology and our shared humanity.

Being together

Universities are very strong communities of staff and students. At my own university, the sense of being in it together has been very noticeable and is probably at the heart of the fact that we are still carrying on as well as we are, a year into the crisis, while not brushing aside for one minute the fact that there are challenges.

That brings an important question to the fore: If the sense of being together is pivotal for our success in this crisis, how do we foster it when social distancing and not being physically on campus are the most prominent features of the present situation? A big part of the answer lies in harnessing the potential of digital technology, and we need to apply the lessons of this experience in the future.

Right now, we need to focus on innovating and digitally enhancing ‘being together’ since we cannot be in a normal, shared, on-campus workspace. But I am convinced that this is just speeding up the inevitable direction of travel. I am truly thankful for the vast expansion of online and digital technology of the past 10 to 20 years. I find it impossible to imagine how we would have coped in the present crisis without digital innovation and the opportunities it affords. It has enabled us to stay connected to friends and family who we cannot visit and see, and to stay in touch with colleagues from our own universities and from all over the world.

I have been present in the past year at some great online research meetings and conferences that originally were planned to take place in Pretoria, Singapore, The Hague and Chicago, to name just a few. I would otherwise not have been able to visit them all because of time and other constraints. Some of those meetings had many more participants online than they would have had in person, for the very same reason.

Beyond the physical

We all miss the physical togetherness of a conference. But I like the fact that I don’t have to necessarily get on a plane to experience engagement and ‘real’ contact with colleagues from all over the world. And I know that after Covid-19, I will be much more careful about travel, both from a time commitment and from an environmental perspective, because I have experienced how fulfilling online conferences and meetings can be.

I started my job as vice-chancellor at the University of Leeds in the middle of the crisis and there are many colleagues I have never seen in 3D. I am surprised, though, at the level of contact and engagement I am finding in online meetings, and how connected I feel to the entire university community.

Of course, our online teaching is not what students thought they were signing up to. Some are understandably sceptical about the experience, but there is a lot of positivity as well. If teachers embrace the online environment and learn how to use it well, it can actually be more personal and engaging than many ‘standard’ modes of teaching and lecturing.

It is highly likely that after Covid-19 we won’t want to go back to commuting to campus every day and being there from early morning to late afternoon. We will probably start using our campus, our lecture rooms and our office spaces differently. We will want to go back as quickly as possible to the many things we miss at the moment, but there will be certain online modes of meeting we will want to hang on to.

Finding connections

What we need to do now is be purposeful about our interactions. If we use and develop digital technology specifically to remain fully connected as humans, even if we cannot be physically together, we can in the post-Covid future have the best of both worlds. That’s a big reason why at my university we are putting digital transformation at the heart of our new strategy.

We can all be proud that we are learning to be flexible, to try new things, to help each other and to find ways to get through this huge crisis together. We can use our collegiate working relationships with each other to feel supported and less isolated. We can focus, also in an online environment, on values such as trust, kindness, compassion, integrity and inclusion, to keep us together and to protect us from falling apart as individuals and as a community.

If we can pull through with an even stronger sense of purpose and the will to change and evolve, at least something positive will have come out of our shared experience as academic institutions over the past year. The same thing that makes us succeed as academic communities in normal times will pull us through in this crisis: our shared humanity, albeit with a decidedly digital inflection.

Simone Buitendijk is vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds.