Let’s hope that COVID will eventually be over – when it is, will the campus start bustling again?

Or rather, what should we do to ensure that the campus is humming and offers the best possible student experience?

For years, we’ve worked with architects to create student spaces, to open up ground floor areas, to position cafés so they look out over thoroughfares and lawns. In every new building we’ve created “breakout areas” and “collaborative spaces” so that people can get together, discuss ideas, and work on collaborative projects. We even renovated the bookshop and added a café. Our community voted with their feet and last year these places were always busy.

Now we wonder whether or not the students will want to come back to campus next year or if they’ll log onto lectures on-line from their bedrooms or the local coffee shop.

I’m still not sure if the lecture is completely dead, but I think the 8 a.m. lecture is gone. No one likes 8 a.m. lectures.

To me that is the secret. This is an opportunity to think through what works best on campus for everyone, and what is better online.

Through the COVID-19 days the research labs continued to work. To enable physical distancing half my lab worked mornings and half afternoons, but people kept coming in – for the simple reason that you can’t clone genes in a coffee shop.

Research disciplines are deepening and the infrastructure is becoming ever more complex. Universities are now sites of essential infrastructure and industrial capability. Researchers have been flocking back to campus and will continue to do so.

A lot of teaching fits best on campus too. Obviously, practical classes. I was always mystified when people warned me about Massive Open Online Courses and how they would totally disrupt our business model. Yes, some good things can be learnt via MOOCs but there was too much hype. Ultimately, it’s a question of the right medium for the right course. Chemistry, physics, and biology, engineering, and many other subjects, really need practical classes. Maths can work well on-line. But even with maths, some students want face to face learning, while others may prefer on-line.

Tutorials, discussions, debates, theatre, sport, music, the library, will all ensure that students come back to campus. I predict that after COVID the teaching that does occur on campus will be more interactive than ever. What works on-line may stay on-line, and digital-support will have stepped up notch, like the establishment of a second library for students to access. But the campus will become the site of interactive teaching and student participation. There will be plenty of interactive classes and still some special lectures – big lectures that are designed as events either for interaction or to draw together a broad audience and form communities.

So I’m confident we’ll see our students again soon.

But I do expect that students of different ages may behave differently. I think on campus learning may be particularly important for first year undergraduates. The world keeps changing and teaching support and styles keep changing but student DNA doesn’t change so school leavers will again look forward to coming to campus next year. Going away to university – even to the university at the end of the road – is a rite of passage. For many it’s part of growing up.

It’s long been recognised that a sense of place is important. Oxford has an old rule that students must live within six miles of Carfax Tower – the centre of the town – for at least six weeks of each term. Those who come to Australia on student visas, to immerse themselves in their studies, are expected to attend in person and can only take a third of their courses on-line. There is something magical about going somewhere to do something, and something special and energising about large numbers of people coming together to learn.

Similarly, while some post-graduate students who are working or live remotely will want to stay online, other post-graduates, especially international students, seeking an immersive experience, and unequivocal evidence that they can excel anywhere – who remember the old motto – “if you make it here, you’ll make it anywhere” will keep coming to access a quality education. Some will go to New York, but the world is changing, and my bet is that in coming years a good proportion, will head for New Holland instead.

I’m thinking that Australia will remain a very attractive destination and the pent up demand will create a boom that hopefully will lock in momentum for the future. We have some of the largest and most vibrant universities around with a good mix of quality teaching and research. Surely that’s worth getting out of bed for.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic



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