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Univ at the end of first week

Statement from the Vice-Chancellor and College HeadsWe are now at the end of the first week of Michaelmas Term, and there is no denying that it has been an unusual start to the year. The big news is that almost all of our students are in residence, including more than 120 new undergraduates and 80 new graduates. Given the uncertainties of recent months, this feels like a significant achievement, and it is a testament to the determination of our students and staff that they have all worked very hard to make this year as normal as it responsibly can be. We are delighted to have our students here in Oxford, and even allowing for the requirements of social distancing, the College feels more vibrant for their presence.

The arrival of our new students went as smoothly as it possibly could. We are very grateful to the friends and families of our freshers who helped them to move into their new rooms, and also to the student helpers who spent a rainy weekend shepherding new arrivals around the quads and halls. We had wondered if new and returning students and their families would be apprehensive about coming to Oxford, given recent reporting of the challenges faced by some other universities.  In the event, the mood was very upbeat. Students were excited to be here, their families were smiling, and the most common comment was “I’m just glad that I can get on with my life.”

This weekend, we mark the matriculation of our new students with on online address by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, and then a socially-distanced afternoon tea of sandwiches, scones, soft drinks and fizz, hosted by Univ’s new Master, Baroness Valerie Amos.   There will be more socially-distanced welcome events in the coming weeks, and the JCR and MCR committees have put on a wide range of online and socially-distanced activities.

Teaching, learning and research are well underway. All large-group teaching, including lectures, is conducted online. Currently, small-group teaching, including tutorials, is conducted face-to-face where possible, or online where that is more appropriate. We have all learned a great deal about online teaching, and students and tutors alike are now well versed in making it effective and engaging. Labs and libraries are open, albeit with necessary restrictions in place, and the vast majority of graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and faculty members have been able to pick up their research again. Some have had to change their research plans to accommodate restrictions, and together with their faculties we are doing what we can to support them appropriately.

COVID-19 remains a major challenge, and we are not complacent.  As is routine across the sector, both students and staff have had to self-isolate whilst awaiting test results, and this will be the new normal for some time to come.  In some instances, those tests have led to a positive result, and it would be naïve to hope that there will not be increasing numbers of infections as we move through term.  We take very seriously the need to play a full and active part in limiting the spread of the virus, and we continue to work with our students to ensure that they are part of the solution, not the problem. Where we have seen a spike in positive results, we have put in place appropriate measures which take account both of the rights and reasonable expectations of individuals and also our obligations to the wider community. The University’s early Alert Service and Public Health England have been supportive partners in this.

Our ability to limit the spread of the virus, and to support those who are required to self-isolate, is increased greatly by the fact that all resident students live in small households of approximately six to ten people. This arrangement is supported by our architecture: we do not have mammoth halls of residence; we have staircases and corridors which naturally house small groups together. This means both that all students live with a group of peers with whom they can mingle freely, and that when an individual is required to self-isolate only a small number of other students are obliged to join them in so doing. Arrangements are in place to support those self-isolating, and this currently includes the provision of three delivered meals a day for those who want them.

There is no doubt that students and staff will face considerable challenges in the coming weeks. We are mindful of the heavy workload that many members of staff have taken on, and of the strain of uncertainty under which many students are living. We are committed to supporting the wellbeing of all staff and students. There is also little doubt that COVID-19 will define many aspects of College and University life. We have a role to play in its management, and some in the College community have leading roles in the scientific drive to defeat it. We will continue to follow, and to promote actively, all public regulations and advice. We will also continue to treat all members of our community with respect, and accord them as much autonomy as we reasonably can.

It is going to be an unusual year, but nonetheless we will work each day to make it as normal as we can.

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