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Riders on the storm: Urgent action is needed or reset the clock

UPDATE 27th Sept 2020
More news today of students locked down in cities across the UK means that action should be taken with immediate urgency. They must be dispersed home in an orderly way as soon as possible. A policy of ‘test and disperse’ must be in place within days and followed through. 
All universities must then cooperate to improve access to facilities with the inevitable shift to online learning. It must be treated as an emergency and dealt with now, not at Christmas. If this is not done soon, then we should reset the clock and start again with a fresh term in January. All institutions across the UK must allow access to their facilities to ensure students can study online nearer to their home and within the inevitable lockdown areas at home. 

By suggesting that students may not be allowed to travel to their family homes at Christmas, it means that the government has finally confirmed  the ‘experiment’ has failed. All advice they received this summer pointed to the dangers of opening universities. Now all students will be remote learning on campus with no need to be there. It surely must be expected that they will not comply with a lockdown over Christmas and a disaster is about to unfold. One that has been engineered by the UK governments and the university managements combined. 

Test and disperse.

Most will be able to go home after testing. This will allow universities to concentrate their efforts on those unable to go home and protect vital university staff. This must include non-UK students, those with no families and those estranged from their families. Those wishing to shield older family members should be tested more than once or also allowed to stay. Such action will ease the pressure on facilities and ensure the most vulnerable are protected. Access to online teaching will become extremely important, especially to less advantage students. If this is not done very soon, then we must reset the clock and start term again in January. This time it must be fully online and organised through cooperation between institutions. 

Universities and colleges must cooperate for effective online learning. 

It was inevitable that this would happen and a more realistic plan should have been devised. This would include contingencies for students working from home or nearby to home. All colleges and universities must cooperate to allow students to access online facilities near to their home. Students register with their intended university but are allowed to use facilities in institutions near to home if internet access is poor or lacking. This would be a simple thing to arrange. This keeps them within local lockdown areas as the second coronavirus wave spreads. For example, Edinburgh University students could access facilities in Manchester Met University near to their home. They would take up the capacity released by Manchester students returning home. Equally, Edinburgh University could accommodate Manchester Met University students returning to their home in Edinburgh. UCAS has all the data available to work out the logistics of such a scheme. 

The actions above would serve to protect everyone as the number of COVID-19 cases rises. Students would also not become the targets of anger by local people affected by them spreading coronavirus. Importantly, disadvantaged students, and those without family to fall back on, would be protected so they could access the facilities they urgently need. My experience has been that students in their first year who fall a week or so behind find it very difficult to catch up. This must not be allowed to happen. If it does, we must reset the clock and start again.

Posting from 25th September 2020

The events this week have again plunged the country into crisis as the grim and inevitable reality of COVID-19 returned to haunt us. It was inevitable that the annual mass migration of hundreds of thousands of students around the UK would spread the coronavirus. The government had insisted that people get back to work, opened restaurants and bars, and opened schools. In many respects, these were less risky actions since most people had learned to stay ‘local’ and made containing the disease easier. But of course, there were some who paid little attention and outbreaks emerged over the summer leading to several area lockdowns. Universities just add to this danger. Local populations will not take kindly to students, who are now the centre of attention, trying to make sense of a new world and ride the storm. 

Mixed messages confound the people. 

TEFS was very critical of the complex mixed messages coming from government back on 26th of July 2020 in ‘COVID-19, SAGE and the universities ‘document dump’. There seemed to be a quite hopeless optimism about opening universities, despite dire warnings. Yet, the government has been pressing universities to offer face-to-face teaching in the coming academic year for some time. In a statement as late as July (Prime Minister's statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 17 July 2020), Boris Johnson said “In September, schools, nurseries and colleges will be open for all children and young people on a full-time basis, as planned. And universities are also working to reopen as fully as possible”. This was despite the obvious expectation that there would be a second wave over the winter and renewed lockdowns would be needed to save lives. The cynical view of many people now is that the universities and private university accommodation investors had pressed for this so that they could continue to receive income from students. Most of this is coming via families and maintenance loans from less well-off students who are taking massive financial risks. For some, it is the lesser of two evils, the other being unemployment and the doldrums. 

With most teaching now delivered online; it seems that moving so many students around the country was not a great idea. Schools and colleges could return to business as usual since the pupils are locally based. But universities are a very different proposition and it must be remembered that there are many vulnerable academic staff shielding older relatives or vulnerable themselves. The University and College Union has been lobbying to protect staff with little effect so far as universities push for face-to face teaching. However this has receded in the last week, despite reports of staff being ‘bullied’ into teaching this way (see The Guardian today ‘UK universities 'bullying' junior staff into face-to-face teaching’). 

Back in July, I wrote in response to the torrent of warnings about the risks posed by universities issued to the government (TEFS 26th July 2020 ‘COVID-19, SAGE and the universities ‘document dump’). A detailed assessment in the ‘Children’s Task & Finish Group: Risks associated with the reopening of education settings in September’ (and associated paper Annex B ‘TFC subgroup of SPI-M-O: Comments on schools and universities: Response to DfE commission’ was released on 8th July. It had already sent a clear warning to the government and universities alike about the catastrophic potential of the impending mass migration of students. TEFS observed that “It will spread the virus alongside fear and suspicion of students as they arrive in the areas surrounding the campuses….. Just imagine for one moment what the local population of a city will do if there is a city-wide lock-down triggered by students spreading the virus from elsewhere in the UK….. This is not a matter of conjecture. It will happen and universities must plan for coping with this”. 

Don’t go down the pub. 

Scenes of hundreds of students locked into their accommodation blocks flooded the media this week. This will continue to spread for the next two weeks or so as the virus spreads. The Scottish universities and government moved quickly to advise students not to visit local pubs. This restriction will no doubt spread across the UK. It is no idle advice and not entirely related to the possible transmission of coronavirus. I see it as sensible personal safety advice for students themselves. If they trigger serious and damaging lockdowns, the less advantaged local citizens might retaliate against what they perceive as well-off students from other parts of the UK causing the problem. Anti-student sentiments are commonplace and the idea of ‘Town and Gown’ never really went away. Tipping them all together onto the street at 10 pm brings back memories of what it used to be like many years ago. The police issued warnings of civil unrest back in June and they will no doubt be even more concerned as the lockdowns tighten. 

Students do not change. 

My conclusion, after 35 years of teaching students, especially first year students, is that they do not change. They are always the same age, excited and optimistic as they gather for a new adventure. For some, the reality and financial stresses prove too much, but the majority press on with remarkable resilience. Students this year are no different. The only things that change are circumstances and students quickly adapt. But this year the process of adaptation will be more radical for staff and students alike. Support groups will be essential as emotions of isolation, loneliness, uncertainty, anxiety, anger and sometimes fear creep in. This is not unusual but being remote from academic staff and vital support  staff will only magnify those feelings. Locking them down over the Christmas period will lead to ‘casualties’ and should be avoided at all costs. Some wiser heads will take time to reflect on their predicament and their place in the world. This is no bad thing and my hope is that their excitement and optimism will be channelled toward leading us all into a better world. They are the ‘riders on the storm’. 

Riders on the storm. 

We are all ‘riders on the storm’ thrown into the world that fate has chosen for us. Our background is not our 'fault'. I was reminded of this not so long ago. It is over a year since I was last on the campus of a university in England and it seems that times have changed since then for good, even if people have not. While I was there, I spoke with some students who were sitting outside the union bar one afternoon. It was a relaxed summer Friday before the end of term. Some were heading home to relax, sharing stories with old friends, others were heading to their weekend jobs and more work. In the background, a sound made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I had not been in that bar since 1977, yet the music was exactly the same. The students were the same age as in 1977 and little had changed. Jim Morrison of the Doors was singing ‘Riders on the Storm’. 

We had lost Morrison tragically in 1971, just two months after the Doors released their last album with him. ‘LA Woman’, and its ominous undertones, has since become an iconic symbol of that time. The song ‘Riders on the Storm’, a poignant reminder of our tenuous existence, is somewhat sinister because of the dissonance of the minor key of E and the brutal origin of the storyline. Sadly, Morrison did not live to see the full impact of his offering and he lays in a grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, close to where he was taken before his time. He was only 27 when he died, and I wonder what an 87 year old Morrison would make of the current predicament of students. I doubt his world view would have changed much as he observed that they were still: 

Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown 

The idea of ‘time and being’. 

Morrison’s music always had a deeper philosophical foundation that was not apparent at first hearing. The cynical commercialisation of music in his time had repeatedly obscured things that were not always what they seemed. It is no accident that Morrison’s grave has an ancient Greek inscription ‘kata ton daimona eautou’ or  ‘true to his own spirit’. 

Morrison was surely influenced by the idea of being ‘thrown’ into a dangerous world through the stark existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger and his concept of ‘Geworfenheit’ or ‘Thrown-ness’. Heidegger died in 1976 at the age of 87, the same age Morrison would be now, and I wonder if they ever managed to meet and discuss the idea of being thrown into a world we do not understand or make sense of. Yet the mission of a university is to understand our world, from nature to medicine, environment, arts and society. It is essential that we at least try. Morrison was no stranger to the ideas of Heidegger, and was well equipped to develop his ideas, having studied comparative literature and philosophy at Florida State University and UCLA. 

Heidegger was in his 30’s when he wrote ‘Being and Time’ in 1927 and it is likely he was still developing the underlying ideas at the same age Morrison was when he wrote ‘Riders on the Storm’. Being and Time is a difficult read and somewhat resistant to translation from German. ‘Being’ is seen as a wide ranging complex entity he calls ‘Dasein’ that tells us “Science in general may be defined as the totality established through an interconnection of true propositions…….. . As ways in which man behaves, sciences have the manner of Being which this entity-man himself- possesses”. Writing for the Guardian in 2009, Simon Critchley provided us with a ready guide to Heidegger in a series of short articles (see ‘Being and Time, part 4: Thrown into this world’). 

This is a time when we should all step back and reflect on what to do as we plan for a new future. There will be better times ahead and our students will be living them. The rest of us need to step back and encourage them to succeed.

The conclusion must be drawn that there is a heady mix of anger, fear, and excited optimism in the air. If our young students are to ride the storm, they will need to steady themselves and resolve to press on. Regardless of their circumstances, they are thrown together as equals and should demand equality for all. They must make sense of the ‘New Normal’ and lead the way. Hopefully, they can support each other and throw off the shackles of self-interest to achieve this. If they reflect on their place in the world, they might grab hold of a unique opportunity to change things for the better. Universities must adapt fast to the changes and steer them on their way with discourse and not just by deploying didactic instructions delivered online in digital binary form. If there is to be one, our students will be the ones writing it. The alternative is revolution and conflict arising from rounding up young intellectuals, trampling on their spirit and locking them down. That path has been trodden too many times in human history with bad consequences.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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