Universities were once defined by their ivory towers, which became symbols of their exclusivity and insularity. Nowadays, they are at the centre of a social revolution.

Laboratories have little impact on a city’s skyline compared to whimsical turrets, but their research has an immeasurable impact on our lives. Lecture halls are devoid of spires or gatekeepers – instead, they welcome increasing numbers of students who act as intermediaries in the transformation of knowledge into wider social and economic benefits, in turn helping to transform the UK into a knowledge economy.

In the midst of the pandemic, universities have continued to conduct research (with much more media attention than usual, given their importance in the search for a vaccine) and aim to continue providing a diverse intake of students with a quality education. But, as is being made increasingly apparent, any discussion around the thwarted expectations of 2020’s fresher cohort cannot centre solely on whether universities have maintained academic integrity. Instead, we must consider what exactly forms the basis of these expectations, and what can be lost when they are not met.

Much of what has come to define “going to uni” won’t be found itemised on any student’s bill. Several studies have suggested that academic staff are increasingly heterogenous in their views, but students still face having their filter bubbles punctured by their peers – sharing a living space and a lecture hall with people from across the country results in exposure to alien values and viewpoints. The potential for ideologies to clash is routinely celebrated as a necessary aspect of the Western education system, and universities usually take centre stage in debates surrounding cancel culture and free speech. Their student societies and speaker events provide countless case studies with which to examine the issue’s intricacies and ethical implications.

Traditional Values

Universities allow age-old traditions and values to continue flourishing within their student bodies, in university-wide practices, and in public displays of art or artefacts. As such, they enable productive, if difficult, encounters between the old and the new. Drinking societies have driven conversations about class and consent. Reading lists and museum displays which fail to acknowledge the crimes of the British Empire are continuously challenged by students born as recently as 2002. Cases brought against institutions for their lack of social inclusivity often cite the generally alienating and inaccessible nature of more extravagant traditions like Cambridge’s May Balls.

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By Joanna Davies: Literature Columnist

University is also a place for many pivotal “finals” – not just the summer exams. It’s a last chance to be undecided about the future, which explains the jostling of career fairs and law firm dinners for attention. Hobbies, as well as career plans, are waiting to be discovered – and when else does one have evenings free to learn the basics of Tai Chi or Ukrainian grammar? It can be the last place you can let loose without fear of consequence if you’re set to enter the corporate world after graduation. It has even been touted as an ideal place to date for the last time – statistics telling us how many married couples met at university are published routinely. This final opportunity to embrace uncertainty often results in the discoveries and decisions that define a life.

Lockdown has demonstrated that the academic learning process can be broken down into its component parts, repackaged, and redistributed through safer channels – at the present moment, this means Zoom and Microsoft teams. But the same cannot be said of the aforementioned processes, which, taken together, lay foundations for a mass social re-education. These processes rely on the physical movement of students through a city or campus.

The university functions as a site of social progress and self-development when students can protest and counter-protest the attendance of a controversial speaker outside of the venue, when a disabled student brings attention to the fact that a lecture hall isn’t accessible, and when an engineering student can explore a love for amateur theatre and still meet their deadlines. Lockdown has served as a reminder that these organic encounters cannot be digitised or controlled, and that who we meet and what we see on the walk to the lecture hall can be just as formative as what we hear once in it.


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