Graduation is a profoundly meaningful part of the student journey at Imperial College. Walking across the stage at the Royal Albert Hall is an unforgettable experience, and one of the many lesser tragedies of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the loss of this experience for those students graduating over the last year.
Graduation in the Time of Covid
For this reason, we are delighted that the easing of restrictions has allowed the College to plan for an in-person Graduation this October. However, with much uncertainty remaining around the future of the pandemic, it is not set to be a typical Graduation. Rather, social distancing measures will stay in place, as they are still currently in place around much of the College.
In a more normal year, the Graduation experience is enhanced for graduates by having guests in attendance – their friends or family present to take photos and cheer them on. At ICU we fully recognise and appreciate the huge disappointment that students might be feeling at the prospect of this aspect of Graduation being lost this year. We also understand that many are confused about why this is necessary, given the removal of government regulations and given that many large, non-socially distanced events are taking place now and in October, including some organised by ICU.
Who Decided on a Socially Distanced Graduation?
This decision was taken by the Graduation Advisory Committee. Student Representatives were involved in this committee, although none from the current Officer Trustee team. In the face of profound uncertainty, it was judged to be a necessary condition for planning of the event to proceed. While this was not a decision that anyone would want to take, it was the right course of action at the time.
Why is this Necessary?
Graduation is an immensely complicated event to organise. Not only does it involve the three separate ceremonies in the Hall, but also the coordination of various activities across the campus including registration, gowning, photography, etc. It is generally organised over a number of months, a period which this year has had to be significantly compressed due to the timeline of government confirmation of easing of restrictions. Just as Covid has made so many aspects of our lives more complicated over the last 18 months, the same is true here and a socially distanced Graduation is a very different beast to a typical Graduation. Besides the absence of guests, many other aspects of the event will be different including the seating of graduates and time allocated for crossing the stage, the way that registration/tickets are handled including the need for testing, and the locations and procedures for gowning and photography.
Of course, if we were confident that come October a non-socially distanced event would be both legal and safe, then these modifications would not be necessary. The Covid-19 pandemic does not permit the College this certainty. Despite the excellent progress of the UK’s vaccination program we are not out of the woods yet, and uncertainties abide around the effects of new variants, and the return of students to campus. We have seen how quickly things can change, and while there is cause for optimism there must also be room for caution.
Why is Graduation Socially Distanced when ICU’s Events are Not?
At Imperial College Union, we are planning for our program of Welcome events to take place in person, with minimal restrictions. But we also have contingency plans, and we know that if circumstances change we can at short notice modify our events, or if absolutely necessary, cancel them, with minimal repercussions. Graduation is not in the same position. It is far more complex than any of our social events, and could not be flexibly modified to accommodate changing circumstances. Planning for a Graduation without restrictions would mean that, if restrictions returned at short notice, there would be little choice but to cancel the in-person event with significant negative consequences for students, particularly those having booked international travel arrangements.
We believe that maximising the likelihood of an in-person Graduation for students should be our paramount concern. We are convinced that, in the face of so much uncertainty, planning for a socially distanced event is the safest option, and the one that permits the best chance for our graduating students to have their moment walking across the stage in the Royal Albert Hall. Though not the same as being physically present, we know that our graduates’ friends and families will be supporting them over the live stream, and will be no less proud of our fantastic graduates.
Lloyd – Union President