(spoiler alert: IT’S GOING TO BE OK)

It’s been an awful year and I know that many families have been hit by terrible loss over the past months. So what I write here should not be seen as ignoring that but I wanted to set out some grounds for optimism because I firmly believe there are many reasons for incoming undergraduates to be positive this year. I realise this may sound crazy and flies in the face of the public narrative so indulge me while I explain why.

The disruption is enormous. Of course. I really honestly cannot pretend otherwise. Putting to one side for the moment exactly what will and will not be happening on campus in a few weeks, essentially everything is disrupted. There will be hardly anything that looks exactly the same as it was intended or like it was last year. But students are already starting to appear on campus, cafes are open and like all lecturers, I am getting materials ready for students for the coming term. There will be more online, restrictions on face-to-face and rules in place across campus to balance safety with the need to be getting on with life.

So why is this a good thing?

The truth is that everyone will be uncomfortable because when the world is shaken up so much, it is a great leveller. Literally nobody has escaped disruption and the same holds for going to university this year. The apparently confident ones may still exude confidence (I was NEVER one of those!) but with distancing, it won’t be quite so obvious to the majority who are nervous about starting university.

Indeed I would go further: moving up to university study is a time for a person can reinvent themselves and they can leave all the baggage of their school days behind them. Some of us go to university later in life (I went aged 29) and so university is specifically a decision about a new start. But the real truth is that practically all students are far more nervous about starting university than they pretend. And this year there isn’t any pretence about it. Everyone is unsure about the coming year. In mitigation I can say this with certainty:

It will be OK

Honestly. Thousands of us working in universities have been planning for this for months now; working out how to reduce infection rates, how to put track and trace in place, how to ensure rooms are cleaned at every handover, how to avoid crowding and so much hand sanitisation! So, whilst it won’t all be perfect, it will be fine. We have been working closer than ever before with students, picking apart medical advice, thinking about how to balance safety with the need for students to get to know each other and form a real community. And this last point is so important because being a community and being clever is really all we have. I have seen how the crisis has led to genuine collaboration between all parts of my university and I hear that this is true across the sector. So we are getting through this together and we will arrive at the other side of the crisis – whenever that is – stronger, more resourceful, cleaner and WAY more technically savvy.

My research focuses on how people succeed in crisis so I know how people can grow through challenge. Indeed isn’t that a significant amount of what university is about? We challenge students to grow academically and intellectually, then support them as they respond to these challenges. And the result? Yes a certificate, access to a huge range of careers, knowledge and a new way of thinking. But also resilience, self-knowledge, confidence of finding solutions to apparently intractable problems. In other words, students this year above all other years will have found resilient ways to learn and their added resilience will always work in their favour.

And a point aimed at my colleagues (and me of course!). Students this year will find their tutors will HAVE to work out how to communicate properly using technology. This is no small feat on their part and will be a vast benefit to future generations of students. But this year’s intake has the opportunity to train us properly. And the same goes for students who will have to learn to check their university emails and messages frequently!

Finally, students will be well aware that the government is very interested in university education. Many of us believe they are often miss-informed or plain wrong. But one fact has emerged that seems set to stick for quite some time: politicians (rightly) believe that employers are interested in the skills that graduates bring to their organisation. They are looking for employees who have a well informed self-awareness of their individual abilities and skills but can articulate what those are. When faced with a challenge like the current crisis, one question you might not think of is to work out what you are gaining from the current situation. What can you take away from it? And how can you explain this to someone else? In going through this thinking, you will be reflecting and learning about yourself. This not only helps you perform well at interview, it is setting you up well for life. For it isn’t that experience that matters, it is what we learn from it.

So, welcome to the new intake of 2020. It’s going to be … interesting!