'New Sheffield students' university experience must be lively, engaging, rewarding and challenging'

Last weekend, a sunny, autumnal Sheffield welcomed thousands of students, either returning to continue their studies, or arriving for the first time to begin their university experience.

By Sir Chris Husbands
Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 11:10 am
Updated Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 11:10 am

The roads were busy, with the familiar sight of overladen cars weaving their way uncertainly towards the right student accommodation block.

It is a familiar, September sight, which follows hot on the heels of the new school term.

The pandemic may not be over, but many semblances of normality are returning.

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Sheffield Hallam University.

It’s been a long time for all of us, but if you are a young person, the last eighteen months has been a huge proportion of your life.

It’s been time that you’ve not been able to enjoy the company of your friends, to explore your world, to learn in company – to do any of the things which, as we all know, make for your childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

There’s nothing any of us can do to give the young the last eighteen months back.

The recognition that Covid cases might spike, that difficulties might lie ahead, is never far from any of our minds – even if the stunning success of the vaccination programme has made an enormous difference and has made so many more things possible for us all.

What we can do, however, is to recognise young people’s understandable desire for some of the things they have missed: the opportunity to get out and explore, perhaps to push the boundaries, the opportunity to learn, work, and, yes, play with their peers.

And perhaps above all, the enormous desire for community.

There’s a wide range of survey data which tells us that it’s this last which young people want above all: to feel a valued part of a community.

Universities have spent a good deal of time planning for this new, different academic year.

The government’s removal of most Covid-restrictions has not removed the need for caution.

Sheffield Hallam, like all universities, has urged all students to take a lateral flow test before travelling to Sheffield, as well as encouraging all staff and students to be fully vaccinated, undertake regular testing and wear face coverings when moving around buildings on campus.

We have a comprehensive outbreak response plan in place, developed in conjunction with Sheffield City Council and other partners, and we will continue to work closely with local public health experts as we move into autumn and winter.

We expect our students to be considerate members of the wider community and take responsibility for playing their part in keeping Sheffield safe.

As well as taking a cautious approach to the new academic year, we have done a great deal of planning to ensure students have a rich learning experience this autumn.

There’s been much coverage in the press recently about what university teaching might look like as we emerge from the pandemic, with widespread negative headlines about universities planning to “keep lectures online”.

These headlines are misleading, they imply that lectures are the only way students learn at university and ignore the enormous progress universities have made in the last 18 months, in deploying technology to support teaching.

At Sheffield Hallam, we have worked with our students to develop an approach that combines on-campus teaching and learning with exceptional digital learning and support.

Our students will learn through in-person teaching: in face-to-face seminars, tutorials, lectures, demonstrations and practical teaching sessions.

They will learn through applied learning in our workshops, editing suites, labs, studios, on fieldtrips, learning alongside their peers.

They will learn through work-related learning: through real and simulated placements, embedded in all our first-degree programmes. They will learn independently in libraries and private study settings across our campuses.

And, yes, finally, and importantly, students learn through remote learning using technology.

This learning can be at a distance to the classroom and may use remotely provided learning materials: it is learning for the smartphone generation – anytime, anywhere.

Universities are exceptional places because they are capable of brilliant teaching at the forefront of knowledge, undertake ground-breaking research, provide young people with horizon-widening opportunities to work with others and because they are embedded in their communities with volunteering, sports and cultural programmes.

But what makes universities special is the way they combine these things.

Of course, we teach through lectures – but we also teach through seminars and workshops, in labs, studios and editing suites, through volunteering and placement activities – and so on and so on.

It’s the way these things combine which makes universities what they are.

None of us know exactly what to expect this autumn.

It is right to take a cautious approach, but we must also prioritise this generation of learners.

After the challenges and disappointments of the last 18 months, we must make sure students’ experience of learning is as lively, engaging, rewarding, exciting and challenging as it can possibly be.

Sheffield student to complete university studies despite brain cancer battle, see health, page 24.