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In times of crisis, education should deliver resilience: academic

November 14, 2021 | 10:00 pm PT
In a situation marked by uncertainty and anxiety, it is important that education system fosters resilience and adaptability in both students and teachers, a senior academic says.

Professor Anthony McClaran, Vice-Chancellor of St. Mary's University, United Kingdom, was speaking at a "changemaker event" organized recently by Swinburne Vietnam University.

Professor McClaran is currently the President of GuildHE, an organization representing more than 50 universities in the U.K.; and a member of the International Advisory Board of the American Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

"We now live in a new era that has completely changed the way we think and work. The Covid-19 pandemic brought in an unprecedented close-down with uncertainty and anxiety," McClaran said.

In education specifically, teachers and students have had a difficult time adjusting to the "new normal" where all teaching and learning takes place at home. Making matters worse was the fact that many international students and staff were stuck and could not return to their homeland.

McClaran said he himself faced challenges when he returned from Australia to the U.K. to take up a new assignment at St Mary's University right in the middle of the pandemic. He had to find a way to connect and work with his team without being able to meet them in person.

Professor McClaran, currently President of GuildHE, an organization representing more than 50 universities in the U.K. Photo by Swinburne Vietnam University

Professor McClaran, currently President of GuildHE, an organization representing more than 50 universities in the U.K. Photo by Swinburne Vietnam University

"It was almost 20 months of working without seeing each other. In the beginning, instead of making long-term plans, we switched to making short and extremely short plans to overcome the crisis while ensuring that we do not lose sight of our long-term goals," he said.

Determining what needed to be delivered to students and understanding how they were responding to the new learning circumstances were part of the new challenges posed by the pandemic. One long term implication of the current situation is that online higher education will play increasingly important roles in the future, McClaran said, adding that prioritizing resources would present another major challenge.

"We worked out a strategy called digital growth, looking into how many learning resources we could deliver and how we could improve online experiences provided to students."

On the subject of "changemakers," he said self-recovery would be a necessary skill. The development of "changemakers" requires universities to accord top priority to mental health, he stressed.

Covid brings in a lot of uncertainties and anxieties for everyone, including doubts about whether they would be able to see loved ones again, when to return to their homeland, and how to protect themselves from the risk of infection, he explained.

Highlighting his personal experience, he said he and his team held dozens of meetings on Zoom every day. The goal was to teach people how to take care of their physical and mental health and provide adequate support so they would not feel alone.

The pandemic has also placed demands on new skills, including empathy and sensitivity to interact and work with people in different positions.

"At the societal level, the pandemic also forces us to re-evaluate what is important, paying more attention to the sacrifices and contributions of others and recognizing the travails of the disadvantaged sections of society," he said.

Reverting again to his personal experience, he noted: "As the situation was looking more optimistic and some students started returning to campus, we introduced the concept of 'flexible' working. This means allowing people to decide and sign up for when to work on campus and when to work from home. We also set up a support hotline for both students and faculty to help them cope with pressure."

He said that his team placed great emphasis on volunteer work, encouraging students to step outside of their own concerns and help others.

On the need to adapt to the fast changing situation, McClaran said it was important to take advantage of the rapid growth in online learning and use of advanced technology. Even after the crisis is over, people would have to remain flexible about studying or work remotely "because we will have many more crises to face in the future."

McClaran said students were the main inspiration for him and his associates in becoming and developing "changemakers."

In the past year, the youth have displayed extraordinary energy and spirit in facing the many challenges to their mental health, he noted.

He said his team at St Mary's University had held a graduation for their students this July. It was a memorable occasion that showcased everyone's eagerness "to be together again."

The professor reminded future "changemakers" that they should choose what they are passionate about, and imagine the extraordinary changes that can happen when they take action.

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