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Those who start their studies now couldn’t find a more interesting time to do so

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"2020 might well go down in history as the best year for the university ever", says Tim Goudriaan, teacher at UCU, founder of teaching platform Teachmehowtodothat and co-founder of the Utrecht Institute for Crisis and Conflict Simulation. For him, the pandemic has accelerated an ongoing process: for the first time in human history, the spoken word reaches further than the written word, while access to high level information and learning is less and less dependent on literacy and location.

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You might not expect to read such a title considering the news about and from universities last year. After all, already in May, Carel Stolker, Rector of Leiden University, labelled students in the Covid era as "the screwed generation". Professor of Science Communication Ionica Smeets said it “breaks her heart” when she thinks of her students. “There they are, with all their plans and ideals, all of them alone staring at a screen.”

The Dutch Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, also lamented how everything is “much more difficult now”. Graduation parties, backpacking, festivals, sitting together: none of that is possible in these “hard times” for young people. Frank Provoost, Editor-in-chief of Mare magazine, summarised it neatly: "Those who start their studies now couldn’t be worse off".

Well… Welcome to university, I suppose. The illusion that studying should be The Time of Your Life is being taken away from you before you even begin. Fortunately, I’ve got some good news: not only has the university never been in a better position than it was last year, it might actually just keep getting better.

Studium Generale
My optimism stems from a broad idea of what a university is. To explain that to you, I’d like to take a short detour to the foundation of universities in the High Middle Ages (1000-1250) in Europe.

At the time, universities were also called studium generale (which roughly translates as “place of instruction and formation”), where the universitas (meaning “the community of students or professors”) came together. Most contemporary universities are in many ways similar to those old universities: they’re places of instruction that are made of stone, with a universitas that’s physically present and awards degrees and diplomas.

Alongside the improvement of the printing press in the 15th century, universities were at the foundation of a series of remarkable revolutions. As a result of the increasing literacy levels, more and more people gained access to these studia generale and their universitas – providing them with more access to high-quality information and learning opportunities. These events not only played a key role in the Scientific Revolution, but were also key in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and our contemporary knowledge economy.

In this light, concerns about The Great Decline in Reading (we’re reading less and less, with alarmingly low levels of literacy as a result) are partially justified. However, these discussions ignore the fact that we are living more and more in the era of The Great Listening & Beholding. Even before the corona crisis, we were possibly in the middle of a Gutenberg revolution on the intersection of (online) audio and video. Podcasts are becoming immensely popular and so are audio books, music, lectures, discussions, debates, interviews, speeches, vlogs, and online courses on platforms like YouTube, Coursera, Udemy, and Grow with Google. The studia generale of our age are growing exponentially in both offer and amount of users. But that’s not all: they’re available anytime, anywhere, on the Library of Alexandria in your pocket.

Game changer
The corona crisis, then, strengthens a process that had already started: for the first time in human history, the spoken word reaches further than the written word, while access to high-quality information is determined less and less by physical locations and literacy. The fact that we’re not all together celebrating these developments has less to do with the corona measures and more with a lack of perspective.

After all, this year is a game changer for universities for yet another reason: the explosive growth of online education has the potential to form a lasting (online) bridge between the (online) studia generale and the universitas. If the university made a crucial contribution to the previously-mentioned revolutions and our current Information Age, then what era will emerge from the broadly-defined university that 2020 gave us?

If universities commit to these developments, they could stand at the cradle of this new era and the revolutions that accompany it. Despite – and sometimes thanks to – the issues that came with the switch to online education last year, students have many unique opportunities to strengthen their digital literacy to such an extent that they could be the pioneers of the hybrid future of 2021 and beyond.

Without wanting to downplay the issues of this – not screwed, but affected – generation, I’d like to make a case for a more constructive perspective on The Time of Your Life. Because those who start their studies now couldn’t find a more interesting time to do so.

This opinion piece was originally published in Dutch in the newspaper De Volkskrant on January 18.

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