College September 2021: What will student life be like?

We asked three experts for their forecasts on how the third-level experience might be different

What will college be like in 2021? The class of 2021 – who may or may not sit the traditional Leaving Cert exam next June – are, along with the rest of us, hopeful that either a vaccine or effective treatment might allow a return to normal campus life and the familiar college experience.

But the future is wildly uncertain. We’re in the midst of a second round of severe restrictions and, at time of writing, the Government’s main strategy appears to be rolling in and out of lockdowns as necessary.

Testing and tracing capacity is buckling under pressure and crying out for resources, poorly ventilated buildings help spread the virus, quarantine measures are less than stringent, and some people are refusing to comply even with basic measures like mask-wearing.

We’re all hopeful that the Government will put in place the necessary measures to prevent a third lockdown, but students should now psychologically prepare for the very real possibility that their college experience may be largely virtual and remote.

We asked three experts for their views on what college may be like next year – and beyond. What will be done, and could this be a positive opportunity for radical change?

- Prof Gilly Salmon, a UK-based digital-learning innovator, is founder and chief executive of Education Alchemists which helps educators build the capacity for quality online learning. Her clients include institutions in Ireland, the UK, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand. She recently spoke at Learnovate, a global tech learning summit organised by Trinity College Dublin, focusing on what the future of third-level might look like.

- Clinical psychologist Prof Patrick Ryan is vice-president of student engagement at the University of Limerick.

- Róisín O'Donohoe is public relations officer at the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.


Scenario one: Little to no on-campus learning

Much like the first semester of 2020’s college year, this scenario would see most learning delivered online, with exceptions made for crucial lab work. Sports clubs would be severely curtailed and there would be very few, if any, social or society events.

Gilly Salmon: Having systems of online learning in place doesn't stop academics and students feeling cheated of their college experience. Zoom and online lectures alone won't make it happen, as I discussed at the Learnovate conference. It is embedded in our psyche that we go to a physical place for the third-level experience.

If we’re still here next year, we need to deconstruct everything that makes up this experience, including getting to gradually make new friends and finding others with shared interests, and enabling them to do it differently. This will be a type of “university in your pocket”, heavily based around mobile phones, which provides a scaffolding for students to know what they have to do each day and will be facilitated in how to relate to others. It’s about designing pathways in advance of students arriving and helping to provide them with choice.

There will still be chances to meet up but, when you get to know people online, there will be fewer prejudices and everyone will have access to people who are like them and people who are different from them. I predict a huge rise in platforms to enable campus interaction.

From the academic side, particularly in healthcare areas, we might see that professional placements – particularly case-study work – can be done digitally, at least in part.

Patrick Ryan: If we're still in this position, we will have refined a lot of the processes we have already put in place. Socially, our clubs and societies officers are working hard to engage our freshers through quizzes and fun nights so that, when we do return to physical spaces, there will be the foundation of relationships between people. But there will also be socially distant or virtual activities we couldn't have imagined before.

Róisín O'Donohoe: Higher and further education institutions have adapted rapidly. By the time college starts next year, these institutions will have received feedback on what worked well and what didn't work so well, and this will benefit current sixth-year students.

There is, of course, a concern that the social side of college won’t be the same, but young people are resilient and resourceful at coming up with new ways of connecting and of forming groups. They recognise that everyone is in the same boat.

Scenario two: A mix of blended and in-person learning

This scenario resembles the original plan for third-level, where students would all have some campus time. Rising case numbers meant that it didn’t happen for the first semester of 2020, but it could look different next year.

Róisín O'Donohoe: The push for digital skills has been spoken about for years but Covid has pushed it forward. Newer graduates will be streets ahead in terms of how they operate in a global market: it will be natural for them to work on a global scale and ring in to New York, Cape Town or Sydney.

Some students will benefit from this mix. In particular, virtual socialising and learning can be more inclusive for students who have trouble accessing college or college buildings. And, in any case, I think students may want more virtual learning which, by its nature, allows them to learn at their own pace.

Patrick Ryan: We do want people meeting for coffee and at small seminars and tutorial groups but equally we will have created learning opportunities which we will want to hold onto. We are social animals and will always want opportunities for real-life social engagement, and that means students will want some physical meeting space which we will work to provide.

Gilly Salmon: I think we will see more students living closer to home because so much of the college experience will be mobile, including assessment, libraries and placements. People will go to the campus for wifi and coffee. In the medium term, the idea of going to a building for all your learning, with books in your bag, is gone. One of the reasons for resistance is that it is exciting to meet new people and have the college experience. We have a responsibility to enable students to have these moments of freedom and exploration, and I believe colleges will have made a lot of progress on this by next year.

Scenario three: A return to ‘normality’

In this scenario, students will be able to safely return to campus and social life without the need for substantial restrictions.

Róisín O'Donohoe: The possibility of a full return to normality looks slim at the moment, but that could of course change by next September.

Patrick Ryan: Even if we go back to normal, things will not look the same. This pandemic has shifted us on so many levels. So we will ask reflective questions: what is worth holding onto that we developed over the pandemic, and what should we go back to? It is right that this reflection happens in academia.

Gilly Salmon: Things are changed forever. Looking ahead to 2022 or 2023, everyone will have realised that flexible learning is here to stay because the future is always so uncertain. Our complacency has been shaken and, once you disrupt people, they see new opportunities for how to do things better. It doesn't mean reinventing e-learning – there are already hundreds of resources out there; it just means implementing changes. But ultimately I think a lot of campus buildings are destined to become data centres.