Covid-19 is our best chance to change universities for good I Steven Jones | Education
March is normally one of the busiest months in the academic calendar. Lecture theatres bulge, coffee queues lengthen and library shelves empty. The interactions are multilingual and non-stop.
This year, silence. Buildings are in lockdown and staff barred from their offices. Those students who remain are mostly unable to go home.
But learning goes on, displaced, not discontinued. In many respects, Covid-19 is drawing out the best from staff, their commitment to students’ education and wellbeing shining through the uncertainty. Seminars zoom on to students’ smartphones, live from lecturers’ homes. WhatsApp groups, set up very recently to coordinate picketing strategy, become forums in which colleagues can support and advise one another. Behind the scenes – and under-acknowledged – armies of administrative staff and IT workers make all of this possible.
Already, old ways of working seem distant and inexplicable. Were there really so many face-to-face meetings? What did all that bureaucracy achieve? Why did universities submit to so many external metrics? Were we improved by this “accountability” regime? Or did we just get better at playing the market’s games?
For logistical reasons, planned audits of teaching and research such as the National Student Survey and the Research Excellence Framework are on hold or in jeopardy. Could it be the time to consider whether their benefits are proportionate to their costs?
We were told that student consumers could make informed decisions only if able to access maximum information. But the ones I’m now Skyping care little about “value for money” or expected graduate incomes. They are just glad that their learning still matters, and that university staff care about them.
If universities emerge from Covid-19 with trust won back from government – and, crucially, are willing to pass on that trust to frontline staff – post-pandemic higher education could look very different.
Opportunities are everywhere. With no school-based exams this year, university admissions could finally take place in ways that allow fairer access. The move to online teaching could accelerate the decolonisation of curriculums. The shift away from on-campus research could open doors for more collaborative scholarship. Unfettered by physical location, and the compulsion to erect ever-shinier buildings, universities suddenly find themselves free to reimagine their place in society.
Maybe we can collaborate to form a knowledge base that allows future crises to be handled in more informed ways, so that fewer lives become disrupted or endangered? Academic research offers a highly potent antidote to the slew of misinformation and speculation that can jam social media. A single updateable point of truth, based on the most rigorous scholarship available, might help win back public confidence and redeem the tarnished reputation of experts and expertise.
Covid-19 research is being published at a faster pace than sluggish peer review processes customarily allow. And there’s an audible softening of tone from the Office for Students – a regulator previously wedded to competition at all costs, now promising to adapt.
But as lecturers imaginatively pivot to remote teaching, trust issues linger. What will happen to electronically “captured” content when the crisis is over?
A TedX model of teaching could prove attractive to those seeking efficiency savings during the inevitable post-Covid financial squeeze, and predatory “ed-tech” companies are already seeking ways to cash in. But students don’t want passive and distant models of learning. They want technology that brings them closer to specialists in the subject they love. Now is the time to make sure that those staff are valued fully by their employers. Casualisation must dog the sector no more.
For decades, universities have been distracted from their core functions by a regulatory framework and management culture that demanded they vie with one another endlessly for research and teaching income, and for league table recognition. With campuses standing empty, those “wins” seem hollow.
Staff have already demonstrated their adaptability, intuitively and collegially doing what is right for their students. Now Covid-19 offers a chance for the sector to redefine its relationship with the public, and for university managers to reset their relationship with staff.