Heriot-Watt University is open and our new academic year will start, as planned, in September.

Despite Covid19 disruption the University has transformed its way of working in a matter of weeks. Students are being supported in their learning. Staff are tackling the challenges of remote working. Assessments are being marked. Exam boards are being held. Care, empathy and mutual support are characterising our individual and group interactions. In many ways our global community is stronger than ever.

And we, like other universities, are well into our thinking and planning for how we step through the summer into the new academic year.

What will that year look like? The reality is we don’t really know, because we can’t know for certain how the disruption brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic will play out over the coming months. But we do know we are well placed to offer a rich learning experience for our students.

What is a University?

With the wellbeing and safety of our staff and students uppermost in everyone’s mind we are looking at how we will safely re-open our campus buildings in Scotland, Dubai and Malaysia. Questions to be answered range from which buildings to open first, to where we put the hand sanitiser dispensers.

More fundamentally, doing our thinking and planning in the midst of Covid19 disruption has forced us to revisit a very basic question: what is a university?

The answer, whilst deceptively simple, has profound implications for the way in which we should be preparing for the next academic year.

A community of scholars not a collection of buildings

Despite appearances, universities are not in fact collections of buildings. They are communities of scholars. Scholars who, at present, are learning, engaging, collaborating and supporting from kitchen tables, makeshift offices, sofas and garden chairs.

And because the University is its people and not its buildings, our planning should prioritise work on the things that best support the functioning of the University’s learning community.

There is, additionally, a very important underlying principle unique to Heriot-Watt, that we will be following in our work.

Identical academic standards; diversity of learning experiences.

Heriot-Watt University already delivers learning and teaching through many different modes and locations of study. Regardless of mode or location, however, we hold to the core principle of identical academic standards.

But we know that each mode or location offers a different learning experience to our students. Students studying in Dubai have a different learning experience from those studying at the Borders campus in Galashiels or as independent distance learners.

Is that a problem?

On the contrary, we consider the rich variety of learning experiences to be a source of distinction and strength for our global University. Not least because it has enabled learners from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and geographical locations to access higher education.

Responsive Blended Learning

Whilst other universities have talked about ‘moving everything online’ we believe the ‘face to face’ or ‘online’ debate misses the point in a world in which students are already accessing learning in a blended way.
We have developed a pioneering Responsive Blended Learning (RBL) model designed to support our global learning community. At its heart are people. People whose engagement, collaboration and discussion inspire learning across the University community. Through RBL our community of students will be brought together in several ways, primarily through a virtual ‘Learning Hub’, which contains core resources supporting both live and asynchronous learning.

Crucially the model is ‘responsive’. Responsive to the wellbeing and support needs of our global community; responsive to what we know have been disrupted and challenging learning journeys for our students; and responsive to the dynamic learning environments in which we operate. As circumstances change we will be able to adapt our approach, blending with enhanced on campus face to face opportunities when these can be achieved.


Academic Year 2020/21 will be ‘different’ for staff and students in many ways; some of which we cannot foresee. But, through our Responsive Blended Learning approach, Heriot-Watt University will continue to support the wellbeing and learning of our students wherever and however they study with us.

As a University community of scholars, we look forward to the new Academic Year.

Professor John W. Sawkins
Deputy Principal (Education and Student Life)