Like any species that migrates annually in search of a more nurturing habitat, young people around the world have, for centuries, left their homes in the late summer to attend university or college. For the vast majority, this has meant moving to another city and, for the first time, separating from family, friends and familiar surroundings.

The presumed primary reason for this migration has been to seek advanced education in order to pursue interests and prepare for chosen careers. A second purpose, less overtly expressed, is to further personal independence. Over the years, those two purposes have been intimately interwoven. Moving away, for the vast majority, was an indisputable requirement of advanced education. For some it has been seen as difficult and a major personal hurdle. For others, it is welcome and long overdue. For virtually all, it has been seen as necessary, beyond personal choice or preference.

COVID-19 has changed all that. Because of the massive shift to alternative forms of curricular delivery required by the pandemic, most (all but those in programs where personal attendance is considered essential) have been provided a choice. They are, for the first time, able to continue their studies whether or not they move to the community in which their learning institution is located. By making personal attendance optional, COVID-19 has provided a fascinating natural experiment. What have we observed?

Here at Queen’s, about 1,900 students have returned to university residences, despite the fact that only a small minority of them need to be on campus to engage any part of their curriculum. In addition, the Office of the University Registrar estimates that a further 8,600 students have moved to local Kingston accommodations. Although exact figures aren’t available, a reasonable guess would be that about 1,000 of these are required to do so to engage required in-person curriculum. It’s therefore reasonable to estimate that over 9,000 young people have chosen to move to Kingston to take up their education even though it has been deemed pedagogically unnecessary for them to do so by those overseeing their programs.

We also know that there is historical experience to support the desire of students to move away from home to pursue their education even if it isn’t essential to do so. Young people who happen to live in communities that house excellent institutions of higher learning will very often choose to move away for the “university experience”. Even those who remain in the same city will often choose to “move out”, seeking separate accommodations away from home.

All this should, of course, come as no surprise. It’s all part of the process of normal human development. Erik Erikson, as far back at the early 1950s, postulated that late adolescence and early adulthood were critical times in the development of personal and social identity.  He theorized that such identity develops most effectively when people at that stage of life are provided what he called a “psychosocial moratorium”, by which he meant a time and situation during which they could feel free to “sample” and experiment with various social roles for themselves before taking on a more fixed and permanent role, i.e., before they “committed” to a profession, personal philosophy, or relationship.  Colleges and universities are critical to providing this environment for most young people, certainly in North America. For that environment to fully meet the needs of students, it must allow them to interact, both passively and actively, with other young people and with teachers with differing life experiences and perspective who can challenge assumptions and promote new thought during this critical developmental phase. Much of those encounters are passive and unanticipated, occurring in various social contexts, small and large.  

And so, the “education” that young people seek by leaving home and moving to universities isn’t simply limited to the acquisition of new knowledge or qualifications. They’re also seeking, and very much need, an environment where their personal development can continue to grow and expand. The “social” components of university life, the “partying” so troubling to many, are not simply troublesome indulgences. They are very much part of the overall growth/educational experience.

The 9,000 or so young people moving back to Kingston this month are basically “voting with their feet” in stating what’s important to them, and what they’re seeking at this point in their lives. As they return, their integration into the community given the threats of COVID has never been more difficult or potentially divisive. Their presence brings an understandable degree of fear. Although their return has been rather muted compared to previous years, many social behaviours previously easily tolerated are now considered unacceptable and, on occasion, infringements of new public health requirements.

Given all this, what are the implications for universities and colleges once the stresses and problems of the pandemic are finally resolved and we are able to resume “normal” operations? If they wish to remain relevant and attractive to young people, what lessons are they to take forward in considering their post-COVID world? I offer a few (very personal) perspectives.

  • The concept of university education being defined by rigid schedules and classrooms of defined capacity should now be considered antiquated and obsolete. The educational adaptations to COVID have shown rather conclusively that the transmission and learning of information and fundamental knowledge can be accomplished quite well without these time-honoured constructs, vestiges of early childhood education.
  • We are also learning that higher level teaching about integrative or complex concepts, knowledge application and simple exchanges of thought between learner and teacher are clearly not fully accomplished through computer interfaces. The absence of personal interaction lessens the educational experience, for both learner and teacher. To be truly a community of higher learning, universities must find effective ways for students and teachers to interact, at the right times, and for the right reasons.
  • Behaviour has to be interpreted realistically. Expecting young people to not socialize is like expecting a fish not to swim. It’s in their nature. It’s how they navigate the world. Expecting that they won’t be overly boisterous from time to time is like expecting a puppy to be placid and stationary. Socializing is not inherently evil but rather a necessary part of development. In young adults who may be somewhat lacking in both experience and judgement, borderline behaviour is an inevitable consequence. This is not to say that anti-social or criminal behaviour should be condoned. Far from it. It should be condemned in the strongest terms. But our condemnation should consider whether there was intent to do harm, be directed at the behaviour and not the individual, and should reflect support, understanding and efforts to educate.

The campus of the future should reflect these lessons learned. The ability to deliver foundational information and basic knowledge more efficiently and flexibly through various remote interfaces shouldn’t be seen as a temporary bridge back to “normal” but rather the beginning of new and promising innovations. Technologies for remote delivery should be embraced and enhanced. At the same time, the critical importance of personal interactions between teachers and learners for higher level teaching of core concepts, knowledge application and exchange of ideas merits preservation and emphasis. The development of creative and effective ways to enhance such exchanges, using both traditional and innovative formats warrants encouragement and support. Finally, the university environment should recognize the critical requirement of young people to socialize and allow them to do so in a safe and responsible manner. Campuses that evolve from being collections of buildings and rooms accessed according to rigid schedules, to more open communities where learning is a more natural lived experience will better meet the needs of students and find themselves in high demand.

The pandemic is, along with many troubling challenges, also providing valuable insights and opportunities. We should learn from this natural experiment playing out around us. We should aspire to more than to simply return to “normal”.

 

I’m very grateful to Stuart Pinchin, University Registrar, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.