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Covid-19 is no longer a short-term crisis for higher education

Monday, 13th of July 2020

As Lenin put it, there are decades when nothing happens and then weeks when decades happen. And we aren’t out of the woods yet. In fact, we are still heading inwards. For universities and students, hopes of a return to normal campus life in the autumn term are long gone, and hopes for a return in the spring are already faint. Now is not yet the time to ponder bright new futures. Many of us have long advocated change, but it wasn’t meant to be like this. Teaching and learning strategy used to be developed by subcommittees of senate or by faculty boards.

Significant innovations were considered carefully, one at a time, by experienced academics and were subject to the exacting, time-consuming scrutiny of quality assurance committees. It wasn’t the key outcome of an incident working group. It certainly wasn’t central to the very survival of a course, even an institution. And yet here we are. Our knowledge of the future remains staggeringly incomplete, but there are things that are becoming clear. Until we have a vaccine for Covid-19, and perhaps even after that, health guidelines will make in-person teaching impossible unless it is in smaller groups.

We also know that some staff and students will find it impossible to get to campus at all. For a proportion of local students, that could be because of health, financial or accommodation issues. International students may face travel restrictions. Countries’ track-and-trace measures could result in intermittent and repeated instructions to self-isolate. And our environment continues to be unstable. Before the dust had settled on the initial move to remote teaching, student calls for fee reimbursement soon clarified that nobody wants to sit in front of Zoom for hours at a time.

Now universities are grappling with the need to implement a flexible approach that assumes students will need to switch between online and campusbased teaching throughout the coming academic year. Traditional university planning processes cannot keep up. Strategies become working documents rather than the dot-perfect papers that used to work their way through our administration. Requirements can be turned on their heads in the time it takes one committee to pass a paper to the next. Highly centralised responses become necessary, but implementing decisions at the chalkface takes agility across all job families and at each level of the hierarchy.

It takes brave decisions to ensure that key initiat ives are appropriat e ly resourced when the visceral instinct of all chief financial officers right now is to cease all non-committed expenditure. But we can now see that volatility will become part of our new normal. The work we began as an admirable response to an emergency will need to develop to cope over a longer period. Hastily assembled online learning teams will move from incident planning to “the way we do things now”. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the effort we put in will quickly become wasted.

The pattern so far is that each new challenge adds a new layer of sophistication to the existing “stack”. All universities started with online webinars. The move to an enhanced model added asynchronous and more sophisticated activities. Scenario planning for the coming academic year is leading many universities to implement hybrid or “multi-modal” classrooms, whereby academic staff deliver classes to physically present and remote students simultaneously. The more creative teaching staff work hard to weave together these different layers to create new models of teaching.

Right now, all universities are watching admissions pipelines like hawks and considering how to persuade students that they will still receive an attractive degree experience. What that amounts to will differ significantly by institution and course. However, in every case, the experience will incorporate much more than the academic modules themselves. It is the multifaceted nature of the university experience that students value. Societies, sports, events, ceremonial occasions, careers fairs and pastoral care may seem slightly peripheral in themselves, but their combined impact is immense. Online gatherings in Houseparty are unlikely to be able to replicate the social experience desired by many; the digital natives understand this more than anyone.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. All university staff now need to be involved in engaging students online; as with teaching, successfully replicating these wider aspects of the student experience online will require creativity, care, planning, expertise and technology. For higher education, the next few months are potentially going to be the most turbulent and influential of our lifetime. But we should stay mindful and keep one eye on the horizon in order to seize the opportunities presented and ensure that change is driven by the right considerations. To quote Lenin’s great inspiration, Karl Marx, people make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances. Still, as Lenin showed, there is nearly always a way to the Finland Station for those who look hard enough.

David .LeFevre

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