The Covid cohort


Howy Jacobs

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Recently I happened upon a group of students in the atrium of our institute, resplendent in their traditional student overalls, who were busy putting out plastic glasses and ice buckets of sparkling wine. “What are you celebrating?”I asked. They seemed a bit nonplussed, even slightly embarrassed by my question. I asked it again adding a few clues. But the only answer seemed to be that they were celebrating nothing in particular. “Oh”, I said, as the penny dropped, “you are just organizing a student party because that’s what students do”. They smiled and giggled, and I wished them success and fun. As I walked off, I mused that though this was a universal and essential part of student life, for the best part of three years, i.e. during the pandemic time, this kind of event would have been impossible to organize. At many times and places it would have been illegal, and very awkward even where people were permitted to gather, staying 2 m apart and momentarily dropping face masks to take sips of w

Those years were horrible for many people, but especially for students who started their courses in 2019 or 2020, and would have gone through their entire 3 years of bachelor study with hardly any access to the normally boisterous social life experienced by those going to university. In fact, it is one of the main character- and career-forming aspects of university, just one which is not measured in credits or exam grades. Earlier generations, especially those who lived through the world wars, also had their lives upended. Life in the trenches was, of course, much harder than being confined to a student dorm with only an electronic simulation of social life. Nevertheless, we need to recognize the loss and damage done to the cohort of young people whose study years coincided with Covid-19. And those of us in the higher education sector have a special responsibility to try to undo some of the ill effects.

What can we do? I have no all-embracing answers, just a couple of suggestions, but hopefully this article will stimulate others with more creative ideas that could be implemented. One thing that could be done is to organize reunion weeks for those whose studies were marred by the pandemic. If done outside of the normal semester periods, universities could arrange short-term accommodation in student residences for those living far from the campus where they studied. A few academically oriented refresher sessions could be spiced up by many ‘student’ parties and other recreational and team- building activities, with the bulk of the organization coming from student associations, and most of the funding coming directly from the universities. The academic purpose of the more formal sessions could be oriented toward the question of how universities should respond to future pandemics, like the ones of 1918 or 2020, or to other disasters, so as to ensure that students get the best possible study and life experiences, despite grim circumstances.

A more expensive suggestion would be for universities to offer a full year of additional studies, for those whose programmes were interrupted or devalued by the pandemic. Though the formal degrees were awarded as normal, the recipients never got the full benefits. But the additional year would do more than just fill gaps in knowledge. It could be heavily weighted towards the vital group activities that were hard to implement during the lost years: seminars, discussions, problem-solving and other small-group teaching modes could predominate, with extra time left for sports, social and other student- led activities. The resulting ‘advanced study diploma’ could become a valuable bonus in seeking career placements and professional opportunities afterwards. The option of taking this extra year could be left open for say 5 years from now, enabling graduates to get a taste of the world of work before resuming their studies.

As in everything, the question arises of who will pay for this, especially as we seem to be facing the prospect of another bout of austerity and cuts. But young people are also voters. Government parties that ignore their interests will not fare well in future elections. The universities themselves should also re-budget their limited funding to cover some of the costs. Today’s and tomorrow’s students might be disadvantaged a little, but nothing like the effect of the pandemic on their predecessors.

It was not ‘us’ academics who robbed the Covid cohort of the full benefits of university life, but robbed they were, and we have the tools to compensate. Nobody is going to pay us extra to spend time guiding students who have already graduated. But it is something that our sense of duty should motivate us to do anyway.

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