Working on the 'Space and Place' Leadership Intelligence Report has, quite simply, been one of the most important and illuminating pieces of work I have been engaged with in a long while (which is not to diminish any of the others). Why? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, creating socially distanced campuses and education is the biggest challenge the international Higher Education community has faced in at least a generation. Secondly, the 'Space and Place' aspect of this challenge, as I have neatly termed it, encompasses every element of university/college life. It touches on the very essence of what makes educational establishments, whether local or global, special, their mission to foster learning and discovery and to transform lives.
Within the text of the report we talk about a convergence between the pragmatic and the philosophical. There is the space, physical or virtual, the enables connection, and then there is the place that helps us belong - as individuals, in relation to others and as a community. The two are indivisible. The intricacy of space and how it is used; the importance of place to the roots of our humanity. As we say in the report, "we travel through space, but we belong to place". There is much more at stake here than calculating room capacities for social distancing, putting lectures on-line to prevent large group gatherings, and marking out one-way people-flow systems, although those things may be important. When John Henry Newman wrote about The Idea of a University (1852) he put across the notion that "a university’s 'soul' lies in the mark it leaves on students" (Sophia Deboick, The Guardian Newspaper, October 2010). The decisions we make now regarding space and place need to keep that soul alive.
This project, whilst very serious in its intent, has also been a great celebration of collective learning. Capturing and playing back in written form the information, inspiration and intelligence that came out of the five project workshops, attended by a diverse national and international audience, and to do so rapidly, has been both a pleasure and a challenge. However, sharing, comparing and disseminating our ideas, insights, plans and good practices is exactly what the sector needs to be going right now. We will be stronger together if we keep the discussions flowing, and this comes across very clearly in the report.
The pandemic-driven landscape (social, economic, policy and health) is very fast changing. As we finished pulling the report together this week, remembering our 'rapid not polished' mantra, in the UK alone a set of key principles was published by the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), developed in consultation with the five HE trade unions, Universities UK the very next day released a set of principles and considerations for emerging from lockdown, and the Department for Education put out its first set of guidance on reopening buildings and campuses. Remaining agile and responsive to the changing landscape will undoubtedly be key to success, with a process of constant reassessment sitting alongside decision making.
The American author and historian Shelby Foote (1916– 2005) is quoted as having said that "a university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library". A provocative statement to reflect upon, certainly, particularly given the recent prominence of blended and on-line solutions in response to the initial COVID-19 crisis. Well, this Space and Place Leadership Intelligence Report clearly shows that higher education institutions are so much more.
Our next report in the series, which will focus on Design and delivery, will be published shortly.