In this Blog, Dr Maggie King, Head of Academic Quality & Enhancement, offers a personal reflection on 2020 and the challenges, opportunities and even moments of delight it brought.   

2019 ended the same as 2020 started for me, with delight and despair: delight that the most challenging of preparations for HWU’s fourth external Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR) had been completed; despair because my much anticipated escape plan of long runs in the hills had been scuppered by severely torn ligaments in my ankle, which happened the very day I’d finished with ELIR.  Mountain biking beckoned for a few months: delight that I could still get out in the hills, despair as I realised my ankle injury and a consequent loss of confidence prevented me from doing all the scary trails that I loved.  The ELIR Planning Visit in January came and went, entirely as planned. COVID was distant, elsewhere. 

By early March, COVID was here, real and frightening.  Extensive, exhausting planning and organisation for the ELIR 5-day visit was almost complete.  I was beginning to tackle again the more technical mountain biking trails, albeit with little speed and lots of terror.  A much less than perfect storm brought all three together on the weekend of 14/15 March: as HWU debated whether or not to keep the Scottish Campuses open in the face of similar closures across the UK, I stood with my bike on a hilltop, facing a very tricky 600 m descent, negotiating with our external review team as to whether or not our ELIR would start on 16 March. I remember nothing of that descent, but all of the anxiety about ELIR.  ELIR started on the 16th, but finished before the first meeting on 17th, too unsafe to carry on in person.  Despair and delight again: despair that more than 2 years of hard work had ended so abruptly; delight that I wouldn’t have to try to juggle my time over a critical external review and escalating institutional responses to COVID. By 19 March, after four days of 15+hours per day, I was exhausted (who knew that long hours would become the working norm for the rest of 2020) and couldn’t conceive of how I could have managed both ELIR and COVID, had ELIR gone ahead as planned. 

From April onwards, the time passed – as for everyone else –  in a blur of Lockdown, cancelled holidays, family separation, home schooling and long working days. Despair again.  But delight too: the camaraderie of working with amazing colleagues, the global collaboration across all our campuses, the strengthening partnership with students, the commitment to make take-home exams a success, the energy and focus on preparing for AY2020/21 and the dedication to provide our students with the best possible experience – all of this shone a light on the HWU community. I was so proud to be part of it.   

But what about ELIR?!  What about mountain biking?!  ELIR: dates were agreed; the 5-day Review Visit would start again, 9 November – a million miles away, challenging enough to deal with the here and now, especially as the child was going back to school in 2 days and all shops were sold out of uniforms (delight and despair!). Mountain biking: the trails opened again, social distancing allowed riding with friends (delight); but time away had destroyed my confidence, the easy trails were all I could manage – fortunately or unfortunately, the same loss of confidence had affected all of my friends (despair). 

Our ELIR results were fantastic, the best yet of our four reviews and exceeded our expectations (delight, and absolutely no despair)…  It was wonderful to have our global, connected approaches, and our institutional commitment to enhancing learning and teaching, highlighted so positively

Fast forward to November, the resumed ELIR Review Visit took place, 9-13 November 2020, entirely virtually, as pandemic necessity dictated, but a huge success for HWU: for the first time, our whole global community could participate equally and easily, demonstrating our one Heriot-Watt ethos so visibly to our external team.  Our ELIR results were fantastic, the best yet of our four reviews and exceeded our expectations (delight, and absolutely no despair), as we were commended in areas integral to the whole ethos of Heriot-Watt: putting our students at the centre, and the value we place on our partnership with students. It was wonderful to have our global, connected approaches, and our institutional commitment to enhancing learning and teaching, highlighted so positively. Additionally, our institutional quality framework for assuring global quality and standards had been commended. A real cause for celebration, demonstrating how far we had travelled as an institution since our last ELIR in 2015, when so much of this was emerging.   

Celebration and delight carried into the last weekend of November, as I spent most of the two days mountain biking, finding myself yet again on top of the same hills as I did back in January and in March; at least with friends this time. High on the post-ELIR confidence and delight, I tackled the most technical descents on both days with lots of speed – and an equal amount of terror (some things never change) – and, as a first, never stopping. Not a bit of despair, bursting with delight; all the more so with my biking friend’s news that she had been project managing clinical trials leading to a COVID vaccine. Never have coffee and cake tasted so good. 

2020 has certainly been a journey of delight and despair, but, in the end, people and community have swung the balance. There is much we can carry forward into 2021, not least how transformative we can be when working as a global team.