A plague on universities: How the pandemic has created breach points for the future of labour, pedagogy and values in higher education.

This post is based on my keynote address to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), 21st October 2020. My thinking owes much to conference papers on 18th September and 21st October 2020 hosted by the Post Pandemic University, especially papers by Jon Hughes, Anis Rahman, Philippa Adams and Nicole Stewart; Mia Zamora, Kate Bowles; Autumn Caines and Maha Bali; Laura Czerniewicz; Ben Williamson; Helle Mathiasen;  Mariya Ivancheva. Abstracts can be found at https://postpandemicuniversity.net/ I have also incorporated some reflections from a HEPI/ Lloyds webinar today: ‘The long-term impact of COVID-19 on the higher education sector’

In the UK, as in many other university systems across the world, we are contemplating emergency measures in working, teaching and learning conditions. We hope these will be temporary. We know there is unlikely to be a return to ‘normal’. However, we also know that the managerial university seizes on the opportunity to nurture a sense of crisis in order to re-orient the university according to a set of priorities that might not be shared among those who ARE the university. What we see right now is a sector which is struggling because of a number of persistent vulnerabilities which Covid has brought into focus and which weigh on conditions of labour and the student experience.

In mid October 2020, Nottingham had the highest rate of spread in the UK. Sadly, the spike in figures coincided with the arrival in the city of 60,00 or so students. Let me say first I am not blaming students for this state of affairs. But I am hoping that an eventual public enquiry will hold the government and university management teams to account for this failure of policy. Opening campuses and residences proceeded against the advice of the government’s scientific advisory committee (SAGE), the trade unions and public health academics. Nevertheless, the mass migration of students across the country went ahead. It was always going to be a disaster to encourage the relocation of over a million students to new cities and residences that demanded close sharing of quarters. Despite assurances of Covid-free campuses from university managers, incidences of Covid infection in some areas of university cities were running at around eight times that of New York City at peak Covid in April. This is a shocking failure to protect public health at any scale. because of it, VCs may have squandered the well-earned appreciation of teams of scientists in terms of research on vaccines, population behaviour, epidemiology and demonstrating to a public made sceptical of experts and academic enquiry, the greater public good that universities can be.

Why did this happen? We need to first understand the political economy of British universities and the vulnerabilities revealed by the epidemic. In the UK we have a marketized system in which 80% of the income for teaching comes from student fees and 23% of that amount comes from the lucrative overseas student body. We would expect to find many universities exposed to financial adversity if enrolments in either category were disrupted.

Throughout the summer, the government urged universities to open for in-person teaching, and the minister for higher education also indicated that the quality of online teaching would be the subject of scrutiny adding that, “If unis want to charge full fees they will have to ensure that the quality is there”.   Additionally, the business model of most universities depends on income from halls of residence, food and other services like gyms. By early October, halls were crammed, unlike some US universities which had kept them under 50% capacity. And please note, it is the richer US universities which have been more able to suppress virus transmission with more meticulous distancing measures.

And so, in a system with little direct investment from government, there was simply no room to take a stand, especially if that government was pulling the levers of power. The health of students, staff and the wider community had to be sacrificed if universities were to survive. Of course, management didn’t put it like that. It was all about not letting this cohort of students fall through the gaps, safeguarding students’ mental health (irony), maintaining the student experience, as well as fulfilling a government mandate that universities should ‘remain open for face to face teaching’. All the while, university managers were maintaining that “Throughout the pandemic our prime concern has been, and remains, the health, safety and general well-being of our students and staff. This will always come before any financial considerations.” [VC of University of Edinburgh, but repeated by many others.]

Over the spring and summer of 2020, universities in the UK became very cautious about finances. Some spent the period seeking to restructure away from hard-to-fill courses and towards the government’s preferred STEM priority. Some planned for mass redundancies in the face of what they anticipated would be falling enrolments this next academic year. In many places, the price is being paid by early career and precarious academics as graduate teaching assistantships and adjunct posts were cancelled. Their prospects may never recover. If they were graduating in most EU countries, their careers could continue. The most significant issue that has been brought into focus by the pandemic is that a higher education system controlled by the market is not as robust as market fundamentalists like to insist. There are no reported redundancies in Germany, and Dutch academics have been awarded a pay rise, while we in the UK are hostage to the (anticipated) fluctuations of the market.

The result has been an unsustainable load on the remaining teaching staff, many of whom have seen their workloads triple and research time cancelled. Shockingly, Coventry University is reported to have announced 100 redundancies at associate professor level with their labour being replaced by additional hourly paid staff.

Some universities have come to regret making redundancies among staff. In the wake of a program of voluntary redundancies over the summer, Nottingham University had to send out an appeal for volunteers to offer phone support to students and parents concerned about Covid issues on campus. They have been told this will require ‘deprioritising’ of their other duties.

In the event, university campuses have been far from under-enrolled; in fact they are full beyond capacity because of another episode of government incompetence. In August, a scandalously botched process of determining A Level exam results (the most frequent route to university entrance) saw large numbers of university applicants appealing their grades. Consequently, universities which had rejected some applicants were then obliged to honour the offers of university places that the applicants had now met the standard for. As a result, universities ended up taking in far more students than they had anticipated. The good news was that this mitigated the losses of overseas student fees; the difficult news was that teaching and residential accommodation would now exceed capacity.

So this is where we are in the UK. On 21st September the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) met and advised an immediate short ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown and for universities to maintain online learning. This was ignored by government. Vice chancellors, reliant on fees, felt obliged to observe the strong government steer to offer some in-person teaching to students. And we now see the result. Even in the face of reassurances about their ‘Covid-safe campuses’, we saw some 14,000 infections in universities in the first two weeks of October.  By date of writing, that has risen to nearly 40,000 cases at UK higher education settings. Newcastle University and the University of Nottingham are at the top of the leader board with over 2000 cases each. It is a quite staggering testament to managements’ unwillingness to heed evidence and well-founded, timely warnings. It is still not too late to change tack.

This is a story of some of the more obvious vulnerabilities of a public service subject to crude marketisation. But we don’t need to look too far to identify some of the others.

Teaching and the student experience

There will be opportunities for curriculum redesign in the post-Covid university, but we need to ensure that these facilitate the purpose of universities as transforming, not just transmitting knowledge. As April McMahon remarked, if we are able to take digital learning forward, we will need to accept it as more than just an accommodation to the pandemic situation.

There may be a rapid return to ‘business as usual’ with regard to reliance on casualised labour. Universities may seize the chance to further exploit these workers by appropriating their expertise via ‘lecture capture’ or other online archiving. This can be predicted when we look at the opportunistic moves to capitalise on the pivot to online by the edtech industry.

Edtech software demands an opportunity for exploitation. Ben Williamson points out that some firms pursue a strategy of ‘free now, sell later’ while “both seeking to solve the short-term global disruption of education, and paving the way for longer-term transformations to education systems, institutions and practice.”

For example, the Khan Academy is offering free software in response to donations from benefactors hoping to make a financial gain on reduced teaching costs ultimately. “Offering products for free in hopes of getting sales later has long been a strategy for many companies in education (and other industries).”

Meanwhile there are reports that software enabling algorithmically proctored exams may compromise student privacy. There is also criticism that facial recognition and detection algorithms may fail to recognise black faces as easily as white, thus reinforcing structural racism.

As Ben Williamson writes, we could be looking at a future in which “the dominant education policy preoccupation globally is how to deliver schooling without schools and degrees without campuses.” Edtech presents itself not as disruptive, but as a saviour.

In her talk for the Post Pandemic University online conference on digital technology (21st October), Helle Mathiasen warned that emergency teaching must not become the new normal, saying  “increased online learning risks instrumentalizing teaching”.   A prime example would be the move towards microcredentials and what I call teleological teaching – courses supposedly demanded by government, industry or some kind of imagined priority specified by university managers. This approach sees knowledge as bounded, packaged and transactional. It is what Bowles, Zamora, Caines and Bali call the archival view of universities – universities as mere repositories where the student-customer equips themselves with only that product which is immediately required.

One advocate for such a move towards disaggregating degree programs into a set of ‘stackables’ is Nick Petford, VC of the University of Northampton. In his talk to the HEPI/Lloyds webinar, he declared that the pandemic has placed an overdue ‘digital rocket’ up HE. While other industries, such as retail and music have already embraced a move online, HE has pursued this more slowly. He looks forward to a move away from ‘provider-led degrees’ with little regard for the demands of business and the economy and towards a degree that might resemble a Spotify playlist – which may incorporate ‘stackables’ from different universities.

This radical departure from a traditional model of pedagogy had its critics on the webinar. As one questioner ( John Baker) noted, artists have been poorly served by the digital unbundling of their work, and perhaps academics can envision a similar fate. This approach would inevitably destabilize any continuity of curriculum or of careers. How can academics commit to a system which views their contribution  as designed for bite-size consumption and time-limited by economic exigency ?

Could we instead look for a redesign of curriculum and assessment which seeks to transform student learning, and enable, rather than limit it? Those very high level and generalisable skills such as problem solving are highly sought after by employers, but they are acquired during long periods of intensive and wide-ranging study. They also underpin the ability to extend and challenge existing bodies of knowledge. There are experiments in this vein, though mostly in the private HE sector in the UK. Taking current degree programs and exploding them into ever-diminishing units for sale might divert us from a more productive way forward to a truly 21st century curriculum.

Academic conditions of labour

With the sudden shift to online learning, many academics find themselves overwhelmed by excessive workloads, especially if they lack experience and training. There has been pressure to redesign modules, sometimes in four modalities: FTF, online, hybrid and hyflex. This has meant many academics have gone without leave and have shelved their research.

Suddenly teaching has taken centre stage as universities have struggled to fulfil obligations to enrolled students. This has come without any promise of reward or esteem. In some cases, universities have cancelled or denied research leave this year. Often, research grants and book contracts have inflexible deadlines, so academics find themselves working massive overloads.

Alongside the pivot to online, there has been an expectation that academics will undertake additional emotional labour as they realise the importance of staying in contact with students who may be facing a difficult transition to ‘the student experience’ 2020. As well as coping with Covid and isolation, many first year students will have understandable anxieties about more extensive independent learning than they were anticipating. They will turn to academics for reassurance in the first instance, adding another priority. After the summer’s redundancies, that workload will be distributed among even fewer staff.

Even prior to the pandemic, there has been a move towards academic fracking – the separation of teaching and research pathways for academics -. It has become harder (or management has become more unwilling) to subsidize research from tuition fees. Therefore, to be coded as research, your project has to be paid for by external income. So, no grant can mean no research component to your workload. This trend will be accelerated by the pandemic.

There is a suggestion that teaching may assume a new primacy and that we might exchange precarity of labour for more full-time jobs. But is this an advantage if those posts are characterised by inflexibility and paucity of opportunity, especially in the teaching-focussed pathways?

What will emerge from this chaos is the post-pandemic university. We just hope that the university that emerges is one we recognise and one that works in the interests of students and academic enquiry. We need to be vigilant and ensure that the more pernicious patterns that hamper those interests now are not amplified in the new forms of pedagogy and management that will materialize. We need to develop what Kate Bowles and colleagues call labour literacy (Building the Post Pandemic University online conference 18th September). And because the neoliberal university demands that we prepare students for the world of work, we need to ensure we teach critical labour literacy to students.

To summarise, there are some choices that will arise from our current breach point for higher education:

Labour

More full-time jobs or a descent into casualisation?

Will teaching and research go forward together, or diverge as separate pathways?

Workplaces that nurture the human or neglect it?

Pedagogy

Universities as training farms for industry or spaces for exploration and growth?

Assessment for pedagogy or penance?

Curriculum design: which modality of teaching offers the best experience of interaction, engagement, equality?

Values

Universities where outcomes or values predominate? Teleological or mechanistic drivers.

Universities as archival or critical?

Universities for kindness or rigidity?

All of these have implications for academic freedom in that any one conceptualisation of the purpose of a university sets limits for what can be said, explored, debated or imagined. A greater reliance on staff with continuing appointments may secure their freedom, but not, perhaps, if exploratory research is curtailed and along with it, the possibility of curriculum renewal, challenging received wisdom and authority.  

But perhaps at the root of all this is an urgent need to challenge the very fundamentals of higher education as a marketized, financialised system. It is now clear that universities cannot function when they are constantly pressed into survival mode, even in the ‘best’ of times.

Craig Brandist in a recent article in the Times Higher offers a warning for those who wish for a revolution.

“But we should be cautious. In post-Communist Russia, the upper classes succeeded in implementing an alternative way of ruling – an authoritarian gangster capitalism – and the lower classes paid a heavy price. If we do not translate our brighter vision into a mass campaign to change the financialised basis of higher education, we too may find ourselves at the mercy of something even worse.”

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