Category Archives: COVID19

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.”

Doing the right thing, or doing the thing right ? A reply to Paul Greatrix

Today, 28th October 2020, on Wonkhe, Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham posted this blog Doing the Right Things? Universities under Covid. It has attracted a lot of comment on Twitter. I felt I wanted to answer a number of points in more detail than Twitter would allow. So here it is – Paul’s statements in bold italics, followed by my responses.

There has been a huge debate about the start of session with everyone having a view on whether or not universities should have opened for face to face teaching this term. I do think that universities re-opening for students this September was, on balance, the right thing to do – the alternative would have had a greater negative effect on both new and returning students but arguing now about September is pretty pointless.

There was pressure from the government, indeed a requirement, that universities deliver some in-person teaching to be able to charge full tuition fees. This probably corresponded with student preference, but I doubt whether students were told that they would not be able to go back home once on campus if there were incidences of Covid. Were they told that they would be establishing a new ‘household’ and unable to see their families for many months ? It’s hard to know what their choices might have been if all scenarios had been laid out. There was time to do this, especially as some US campuses had started to see cases in early August. It still isn’t too late, as we have seen many universities in the US, UK and across the globe switching to largely online delivery since September. And yes, we can and should argue. The amount of evidence available at the start of the UK term in late September clearly pointed to what would happen. You mention ‘the alternative’ when in fact many alternative solutions present themselves for first years and returning students. And it is not ‘pointless’ to argue about this, in fact it is crucial to do so, preferably through the vehicle of a public enquiry because it is essential that we do not allow such refusal of evidence to lead UK universities into such a dangerous situation ever again.

Everyone in universities is trying to do the right thing for our students, staff and the communities where we all live and work…Everyone has gone above and beyond to ensure our students are supported and we were able to restart teaching in September safely.

Agreed. It has been impressive.

You can’t do any of this without money and there aren’t many who would say that the financial structure of our higher education system is optimal…. Is there a scenario in which government will deliver a bail out package to sustain universities for the next, say, 18 months, which means we don’t have to do any of this stuff on campus? No. We saw only very limited success from a campaign to support universities after lockdown and the idea that we are now top of the list for financial support from government is fantasy.

I don’t know the details of negotiations with the government – mainly because Universities UK prefers to lobby in private – but perhaps universities had a little more leverage than they imagined. And again, if the choices were restricted to bringing all students to campus versus not doing so, then an opportunity was missed to make a plan which could address a situation of evolving knowledge with a number of creative solutions. First years on campus, others online. Or stagger the year groups with attendance on campus for a few weeks at a time.

Furthermore, I would contest that the arguments for going to online only provision are not strong – there are very, very few cases of transmission in the classroom.

You don’t present any evidence for this assertion. Given what we now know, and have known for several months, about aerosol transmission of the virus, it is very clear that there is a risk from having several people in a room together, even with 2m distancing. In some universities, students are not required to wear masks. This is shocking. You can’t keep hiding behind out of date information and recommendations and presenting this as ‘doing the right thing’. As Paul Johnson pointed out to me on Twitter, it is a classic case of ‘doing the thing right’ i.e. a misguided adherence to regulations, rather than thinking through what is actually required. Here. With what we know now.

The SAGE advice prior to the start of session about an online only approach was too late to impact the new term and really could not be applied now.

I’m not sure which SAGE report you are referring to, but a report dated 3rd September, three weeks before most universities brought students to campus, states:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making.

The report goes on to identify residential and social settings as high risk for transmission of virus. But there was a financial imperative to fill halls of residence, and the government’s botched handling of A level results meant universities ended up having to take more students than anticipated. Halls should only ever have been half full if there was to be any real chance at suppressing transmission. But given the government-generated chaos and the early September advice, perhaps other solutions could have been found that did not set in motion exactly the scenarios warned about.

There does not seem to be a strong argument at all therefore for moving right now to an online only mode.

I can only think you have not been listening to the staff of your own university and leaders of universities all over the globe. Your reasoning appears to be based on establishing an argument from authority. But when this becomes detatched from current expert opinion (aerosol transmission), this argument becomes deontic – one driven by perceived duty or oblgation. I would go as far as to say it is an argument from authoritarianism when it is used to oblige others, with more informed argments, to comply.

Do we want students to stay in their rooms, halls and houses and avoid campus, classrooms and learning resources altogether?

In many cases, this is exactly what has happened as Covid outbreaks have seen students quarantined in their rooms, accessing learning resources online.

And where will it end – under what circumstances would in person teaching resume?

That’s easy to answer – when the cases per 100,000 fall to an agreed safe level. We note that universities in Hong Kong are mostly online while they have just a handful of cases, mostly arriving at airports, and almost no community transmission. But they are not taking the chance of universities becoming virus clusters and drivers of transmission.

We really do not want Covid to lead to the establishment of a two-tier community where we have one group of staff who are dealing with student issues face to face day in day out and another most of whom never come to campus but instead deliver everything online.

No, we don’t want a two-tier community when we know that all staff make an essential contribution to the student experience. What we want is appropriate assessment of risk. So, in a context of high asymptomatic virus circulation, seeing students individually for short periods, with distancing and masking is one risk; a group of 30 all in one room for 50 minutes with no masks is another, higher level of risk you are asking, or requiring, staff to take.

However, there are other communities too – the local communities in which universities sit and staff and students live, shop and socialise. These communities are suffering much more than our institutions and many local residents are anxious, concerned or even angry about the student presence in neighbourhoods. One thing this crisis has demonstrated is that relationships between universities and their local communities, partners and stakeholders have never been more important.

I do wonder how much goodwill universities have squandered by going ahead with the migration of students and, arguably, accelerating the second wave of the virus. There is evidence of correlation, which obviously doesn’t always entail cause. But there is evidence of correlation of students on campus and the rise of virus transmission in this case as the graphic from mid October at the end of this piece shows. In the case of my borough, Rushcliffe, cases went from 45 per 100k in early September to 1206 today. The incidence in the locality of University of Nottingham is currently falling, but the spread in the neighbouring boroughs is exponential, leading to imminent Tier 3 restrictions. Yes, local populations will, unfairly, blame students. It remains to be seen how they view the presence of universities in their midst in the future.

I argued then (early September) that looking to the position in the US and highlighting the problems that many universities have had there with their reopening plans was not instructive. This was on the basis that there were many variances between US and British higher education, health care and societal models as well as what are often quite different residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social structures which meant that things are hard to compare with the UK in the context of the pandemic….Well, I would still contend that the UK – and UK higher education – are different to the US in many respects, and that whether or not there were loads of cases in the US is not the determining factor in seeking fully to open campuses safely and securely in the UK.

You seem to have been alone in arguing this, and again, presented no evidence. I responded to this at the time. There just is no warrant for making these assumptions that the Covid spread would not be replicated on UK campuses. Obvious if you think about students in halls of residence and their understandable need to meet new people and socialize.

I would honestly say I think the speed of transmission both within student halls and in off-campus settings took many, including me, by surprise and coping with that has been a huge challenge for universities.

This has been a common claim by Nancy Rothwell and others as well. I contend that all university managers KNEW. Hope is something else. Your own scientists were telling you. So were social scientists. And the evidence was mounting across the US. This line is just not credible.

Rather it just feeds social and other media and the notion, quite wrong, that somehow this is all completely out of control and that students are a problem. It isn’t and they aren’t…. Blaming and denigrating students for the growth in Covid-19 cases is both unfair and wrong. They may not all be following all the regulations all the time but show me any part of the community that is.

I completely agree. I make a point of explaining to people it is the fault of the government and university mangers who ignored evidence.

But we do have to learn from the experience of the start of session and ensure we are better placed to prevent future outbreaks and deal with them when they do occur.

Given the current performance, and failure to learn from and adapt to the changing state of knowledge, I’m afraid you have lost my confidence. And that of residents in my neighbourhood.

Worse still, most of these slurring pub bores are also self-appointed experts on everything about Covid-19, British politics and higher education. And everyone is just SHOUTING all the time. I’m not sure I can really see the appeal any more.

They are shouting because they can’t think what else to do when they’ve been shown to be right, colleagues are still being exposed to avoidable risk, and this was all preventable. People are angry, and as you have pointed out, exhausted. And yes, there are a lot of people who are well informed, not experts. And invested in seeing things work. That’s what it means to be a stakeholder.

The alternative to where we are now – not opening campus to new and returning students – would have meant that over two million students would have been staying exactly where they were since March and half a million of these would never have been to their chosen university. In my view the consequences of that for them, their mental health, their ability to adapt and grow into university life and studies would have been potentially catastrophic.

As someone who was a resident tutor for over ten years, I wonder at the damage to mental health that isolation on campus and restrictions on seeing family will do. How is this working for shy students? Students with autism? Homesick students? LGBTQI students? Minority students? Students whose first language is not English?

We have to work out a way to chart a course to how we see our universities operating in future, both to ensure we stand a chance of survival and long run success but also to give us something to be optimistic about.

There is a group of researchers from over 50 universities having very wide-ranging, informative, respectful discussions about building the post pandemic university. You would be welcome to join these conversations about teaching, learning, research, equality, edtech, conditions of labour and many more issues. Your experience would be a valuable contribution.

The collapse of the Covid-secure campus

We are now into September 2020 and plans to allow students to come back to university campuses are proceeding. Universities have been required by the Office for Students to inform new and returning students what they might be able to expect in terms of teaching (online or face to face) in 2020/2021 and how quality, standards and a good student experience will be maintained. 

However, evidence is emerging that even the high degree of planning for Covid-secure campuses that has happened over the summer might not be enough to prevent students, staff and communities from spreading the virus. 

Nobody, apparently, wants to be the second campus to tell students they are going to be studying totally online; the University of Cambridge made an early decision in May to go to online classes for the next academic year. 

By contrast, the University of Bolton was the first to release extensive and detailed plans for a Covid-secure campus which would allow for the resumption of face to face classes, and the University of Leicester has promised Covid screening to reassure new students deterred by the recent city lockdown. 

Everything was looking hopeful until August when universities opened up in the US and offered the UK a preview of what happens when you invite thousands of students back to Covid-secure campuses and hold them to unrealistic expectations. The first forewarning came from cities in the southern states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Texas as videos of mass outdoor parties circulated on social media. These were followed by a spike in positive tests, even when those cases were asymptomatic. In swift succession, cases in Iowa surged, mainly in cities with large universities. These were all states where the rate of positive tests was well over 10%. And then came SUNY Oneonta, a campus I know well – I taught there at one time and my spouse retired from there recently. Here was a small (6000 students) rural, upstate campus where the positive test rate in the region had been around 1%. Within two days of starting, mostly online, classes, there were over 100 cases. The problem, evidently, was bringing students back to residences where naturally they would want to congregate, and perhaps also visit the town bars (alcohol being banned on most US campuses). As of today (7th September) the college reports 651 cases. It is now beyond dispute that the Covid hot spots are tracking the migration of students. And let’s hope the colleges are able to quarantine infected students in order to prevent exporting the virus as they leave campus to return home. 

Some universities have been more successful at securing public health. Duke University, among others, has used constant pool testing to identify the presence of virus as well as screening of all returning students. They have also reduced the number of students resident on campus by 30% and moved most classes online. These strategies point the way to offering students some kind of quality experience while learning and living with Covid on campus. 

In the UK, though, the warnings from the US are not being fully heeded. Universities UK, the group representing university managers, has indicated its preference for some face to face teaching to be offered by universities. UUK retweeted a letter published in The Times, with the comment, “The majority of UK universities will provide a combination of online and face-to-face teaching this year where it’s safe to do so. The importance of having in-person contact with tutors has been flagged by 100 leading academics in the Times today”.  

As a result of this steer, most universities are still making plans to open university residences,  even while most classes are online, with the promise of some face to face teaching. This is probably the most ill-advised fudge they could have come up with. What it suggests to critics is that universities have been more concerned with recruiting students and their tuition fees than with safeguarding public health.

Many academics and support staff have been resistant to teach face-to-face, pointing to new and evolving information about the transmission of the disease and concerned about their own vulnerability to it. And it appears now that their reluctance has been vindicated by the Independent Sage group of scientists which has counselled caution regarding opening of campuses to students.

Universities should focus on providing excellent quality remote learning by default, with regular review points, rather than deliver in-person teaching on campuses that are likely to close again.

To the disappointment of some university managers, the more formal Sage group has confirmed the view that:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making. [Sage statement 3rd September]

Their report recommends clear strategies for testing and tracing, warning that ‘accommodation and social interactions are likely to be a high-risk environment for transmission to occur’ which is less easy to mitigate. UCU fully endorses the opinion that the health of staff and students should come before other considerations. 

Paul Greatrix, Registrar of the University of Nottingham, writing on Wonkhe, offers a picture of what a ‘Covid-proofed’ campus should look like. He makes the case for full re-opening, with mitigations, and a commitment to managing student behaviour to address the fears of the wider community in which universities reside. “We have to begin the journey which will eventually get us back to something approaching normality.”

He details the following well-evidenced mitigations and preconditions:

  • Many buildings have been adjusted for social distancing arrangements
  • Plans have been made for delivering larger classes online
  • Changes to timetables to help with preventing crowded corridors, allowing for smaller class sizes and cleaning in between classes
  • Face coverings mandated indoors in many places
  • New Covid student codes of discipline and pledges
  • New restrictions on numbers of people who can be present on campus or in particular buildings at any one time
  • Physical changes to halls of residence
  • Working closely with Local Resilience Forums including in relation to local outbreak control plans
  • Planning how best to ensure an effective test and trace operation within a less than satisfactory national context.

It is the last point that should be the rate limiting step. News from all UK outlets today, confirmed on Twitter, is that testing is overwhelmed and not readily available in all areas, and yet the efficacy and availability of regular testing is key to reassuring staff and students that it is safe to return to regular classes. As SUNY Oneonta puts it, this is ‘a dynamic situation’, and it is time the UK recognised that pursuing a course that has not worked elsewhere, and expecting it to be different, will be disastrous. Paul Greatrix argues that  there can be no comparison between the US and UK HE contexts  but I am not convinced that the residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social models are different enough that the spread of Covid in the UK cannot be predicted from the US experience. There is a recurrent assumption by  those urging a return to classes that students can be contained within Covid-secure campuses. I suppose it is consistent with a view that positions students as service users rather than as members of a community, but it does fly in the face of reality. Students come to university towns and cities and take jobs, volunteer, join gyms, use bars and importantly, rent housing. Universities play an important social and community role, a view supported by the UPP Civic University Commission (and indeed by Greatrix himself).  To invite students back to campus and forbid them to socialise is a perverse attempt to shift the responsibility for the outcomes from university managers onto students.

We hear from the higher education minister, Michelle Donelan, that further guidance on opening campuses will be provided this week. Unfortunately, this comes after students have committed to university places and in many cases, to accommodation contracts. You can sympathise with ‘stakeholders’ who are wondering why this worst of all possible worlds has been allowed to unfold – or why the course towards adversity hasn’t been reversed.

Higher education and pandemic uncertainty

Anyone managing, working in, studying at or applying to a university is facing uncertainty during a pandemic spring that may extend into a pandemic autumn.

Wonkhe has published four informative pieces on the scale of the economic challenge for universities: by David Kernohan here  and  here , and Jim Dickinson here.  In another, Jo Grady, General Secretary of UCU, writes:

A conservative estimate on the impact of Covid-19 on our universities by London Economics identified a £2.5bn funding black hole, which would result in a £6bn shock for the economy and a loss of around 60,000 jobs – half directly in universities and the rest in the communities they serve. It is an alarming prospect.

What was unexpected was a sudden curveball from the government on student number controls. The Office for Students had already issued an injunction not to implement any admissions policies which might cause instability in the sector. This was interpreted as a warning to those universities which had been named and shamed for offering ‘conditional-unconditional’ offers in the hopes of grasping some certitude by luring applicants from the clutches of more prestigious, but selective universities. But then the government saw fit to destabilize the admissions process all on its own. The award of 5,000 places on the basis of selective metrics was a calculated decision to further rig a market which has stubbornly refused to bend to incentives over the years to deliver market supremacy to the Russell Group. David Kernohan explains:

The ability to bid for a total of 5,000 places in architecture, sciences, maths, social work, engineering (and engineering geology), and veterinary science is linked not to TEF itself – but to the data underlying two TEF metrics as absolute values. Additional places are only available if your continuation rate is over 90 per cent, and your graduate highly skilled employment or further study rate is above 75 per cent.

So we have eligibility criteria that actively encourage the growth of providers that recruit students overwhelmingly from well-to-do backgrounds. And this is a deliberate choice.

For 2020/ 2021, most universities are offering the prospect of some face to face teaching, while presenting online lectures as something they have been ‘aspiring’ to for a long time. In fact, they had seemed just as happy with Panopto lecture capture and its dual promises of surveillance and strike breaking opportunities. But never let a pandemic forestall the opportunity for some PR casuistry from Universities UK and some individual universities.

It was fantastic to see our blended approach to online and face-to-face learning being held up as an example to follow yesterday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon MP.

boasted Nottingham Trent.

However, it may have been premature to announce death of traditional campus-based learning. The president of Indiana University, Michael McRobbie, quoted in the Times Higher said “One thing we have learned definitively is that students do not want to be locked in their parents’ basement for four years doing their degree online.”  But we wait to see if the yoyo-ing ‘market’ and online delivery will carry much appeal for students who are reportedly considering deferring entry until September 2021. Many also support delaying the academic year.

If students are feeling anxious, academics are feeling the pressure of panicked demands for increased research activity from managers who at the same time are threatening redundancies.  Even as academics have struggled with home-based working, some university research mangers have demanded ‘business as usual’. This has provoked an instant reality check from contributors to academic Twitter, and this from Daphne S. Ling in a Nature article entitled ‘This pandemic is not an extended sabbatical’.

Many of us are also dealing with precarious housing, food and financial insecurity, unexpected care of children and relatives, exacerbation of chronic physical illness and mental-health struggles, family members working on the frontlines and separation from families and friends. Our struggles, anxiety, fear and grief are real. We don’t all have access to the same resources or support systems, and not everyone’s struggles look the same. Disparaging messages about productivity are especially toxic to people struggling with their mental health who have been cut off from their support networks.

The relentless insistence on productivity has been on display at the University of Strathclyde where there has been no relaxation of pressure to produce world-leading REF outputs from the University of Strathclyde. Below is a screenshot of the email recently sent to academic staff. Despite the attempt to camouflage the purpose of this message as ‘support’, the message from management is transparent and threatening. Don’t you dare let your ‘outputs’ fall or your citations diminish, even though you may have little control over either.

Strathclyde expectations

On a more promising, if contradictory, note, it is refreshing to see a new commitment to mental health in universities. This will be a priority says Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK who asks UK vice chancellors to commit to mentally healthy universities, heralding the Step Change program, which, in partnership with the Student Minds charity, promises a new whole-university approach which puts equal emphasis on staff and student mental health.

We encourage our members to adopt a whole university approach to mental health, ensuring that mental health and wellbeing are a core part of all university activities. Strong and visible leadership is essential to unlock the changes we all want to see”…“We need to see senior leaders speaking out and promoting open and supportive conversations about mental health, involving students and staff in a collective commitment to improve outcomes for all.

Readers of this blog may be familiar with my account of trying to have one of those conversations with students about staff mental health. I imagine there will remain some similar limits to the scope of those conversations.

In my subsequent investigations (here and here) of the mental health climate for staff in universities, I have made quite a few recommendations on how this might be ameliorated in terms of structural changes and realistic expectations of staff. One recommendation which now seems doomed is any commitment to sustainable careers for new PhDs, post-doctoral researchers and newly appointed lecturers. In the US and England – market-dominated higher education systems – the price is being paid by early career and precarious academics who now face hiring freezes which will blunt their ability to get a career launched. Their prospects may never recover. If they were graduating in most EU countries, their research 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. While there are no reported redundancies in Germany, and Dutch academics have been awarded a pay rise, we in England are obliged to gamble the future of universities on tuition fee income and a constant flow of students from outside the EU. We are about to witness the consequence of a depletion of both sources of income. The claim has frequently been made that higher education in the UK has been spared the consequences of austerity. That claim will not be repeated as we see the failure of the strategy of marketisation to counter the vulnerabilities revealed by an unforeseen crisis. Today The Times pronounces, “The likely bankruptcy of some institutions would be neither surprising nor particularly regretful.”   There seems to be a real chance that England will see its universities decimated, while those of other major economies will strengthen. Let’s hope those whose educational choices are so casually dismissed by The Times will fight for the university places that will expand their opportunities and they have qualified for.

 

 

 

 

Keeping a lid on the pressure: universities and mental health

It has been almost a year since HEPI published the first Pressure Vessels report on the epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. Last week saw the publication of an update co-authored by Nicky Priaulx of Cardiff University and me: Pressure Vessels II.

The update was written partially to address criticisms of the first report levelled by some vice chancellors: the data was too old, lessons have been learned, mental health is our priority etc. But the updated report tells its own story. With the last two years of data analysed, there has been a continued rise in the numbers of referrals to occupational health (19%) and counselling services (16%). Scroll down to the press release for more headlines.

The response to Pressure Vessels II from Universities UK gave me a sense of déjà vu and so I compared it with last year’s quote in the Times Higher – it was word for word the same:

In a statement Universities UK said “the health, wellbeing and safety of all staff and all students is a priority for universities.

The response from UCEA was baffling to say the least:

Raj Jethwa, CEO of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said the report could have viewed year-on-year increases in mental health referrals “as a positive improvement to staff well-being in the HE sector.”

In what world is an increase in mental health referrals a positive reflection on the sector’s response to the mental health crisis? When we remember that it is the employers’ responsibility to PREVENT stress, you wonder why they have not moved to follow some of the recommendations I made last year. Their response prompted me to tweet:

And here’s UCEA, channelling Captain Schettino of the Costa Concordia, vaingloriously sailing his liner towards the rocks, abandoning crew members as it sinks.

There are a number of unanswered questions looming as universities face the future post-Covid 19. How will staff be protected from excessive workloads arising from redundancies, resignations that will not be replaced, and an unwillingness to continue to employ hourly-paid staff or graduate teaching assistants? Universities are even now cancelling sabbaticals and cutting academics’ time for research – but will the same expectations to produce world-leading REF 3* and 4* research outputs still apply? And what about student satisfaction as courses move online – will academics still be held accountable for that? These are all serious stressors in the life of academics at the moment before we have even taken account of sickness, grief and changes to financial circumstances being confronted by many in universities.

Most people who read this blog are aware of why the staff experience in universities and the mental health crisis are important to me, but let me give some context.

Just a few days previously, I published this piece on the CDBU website (and also on this blog). Here’s the connection to the Pressure Vessels reports. The CDBU blog piece ‘Don’t frighten the students’ was my account of the events that led to my resignation from my academic post in 2016. It places my concern with universities and mental health as the motivating force behind the work that has kept me busy with speaking and writing for the four years since I left. I felt I owed it to the injured colleagues I had met at various UK and international universities, and those whose blogs and tweets I had read, to keep raising the issue. I think the evidence speaks for itself – it is, after all, based on the universities’ own figures for mental health referrals.

When managers questioned my right to publish on this issue, their immediate concern was to silence a voice they considered impertinent. Rather like Matt Hancock, they didn’t like my tone.

It might have played out very differently. An enlightened manager could have suggested, as Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, did, that I pursue a rigorous and fact-based study of the issue. University managers, though, are less interested in hearing challenging views on issues they consider inconvenient. My experience reminded me of a story told by fellow blogger, Plashingvole, about the time he was interviewed for a management job. He was asked what he would do with dissenters. ‘Encourage them’ was his reply. He didn’t get the job. But questioning, challenge and refusal are all essential if universities are to nurture the critical thinking that drives real progress. It has amused me to speculate that these two reports for HEPI might have formed the basis for quite a creditable REF impact case study. No skin off my nose, because, as I am fond of saying, I have been able to get so much more real work done when I’m not having to justify it to management or the machinery of academic audit.

When Pressure Vessels came out in May 2019, I still did want to take one last swipe at the forces of institutional repression. I sent ‘personalised’ copies of the report to two of the managers who presided over my process for gross misconduct. The inscription read:

For X – witnessing your creative approach to the disciplinary process at Z University inspired me to campaign for compassion and kindness in university management. Your actions have led me to publish with a well-regarded organization which has amplified my voice. I will always be grateful.

Subtle. And true. Without them, these reports probably wouldn’t have been written.

This press release first appeared on the HEPI website on 30th April, 2020. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/04/30/pressure-vessels-ii-an-update-on-mental-health-among-higher-education-staff-in-the-uk/

Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK (HEPI Policy Note 23) by Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University, reveals figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests on demand for counselling and occupational health services.

  • From 2016 to 2018, there was an increase of 16% in counselling at the 14 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • Over the same period of time, there was a rise of 19% in occupational health referrals at the 16 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • From 2009/10 to the end of 2017/18, at those five universities reporting complete data, there was a rise of 172% in staff access to counselling.
  • At all 17 universities covered in the report, there has been a rise in staff access to counselling of 155% in recent years.
  • At the 10 universities with data for 2009 to 2018, occupational health referrals rose by 170%.
  • For counselling and occupational health, the figures reflect gender differentiation, with women more highly represented.
  • There is also a pattern corresponding to contract type: for occupational health data, the largest proportion of individuals being referred is non-academic staff.
  • While greater use of support services may sometimes reflect improved access, the analysis may also support previous claims about the declining mental health of university staff.

The report builds on HEPI’s earlier ground-breaking work on this issue, published in May 2019 as Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff.

Dr Liz Morrish, the co-author of the report, said:

‘The first Pressure Vessels report was well received by staff who work in higher education. However, some managers and executives appeared unwilling to accept the findings of year-on-year increases in mental health problems. We hope this updated report will confirm our case beyond argument. The current sample of institutions has identified increases in referrals to occupational health and counselling as high as 500% since 2010.

‘We have also looked at the effect of this climate of workplace stress on staff retention. As we look forward to a future after the COVID19 pandemic, higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.’

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, said:

‘After the current Covid-19 crisis is over, universities are going to have to pick up the pieces. There will be new challenges in recruiting and keeping students, in managing finances and in delivering research. It is vital that the wellbeing of staff is always considered as these changes occur.

‘The future success of UK universities mustn’t come at the cost of individuals’ lives. We need to build a virtuous circle by delivering supportive environments that strengthen institutions because they work well for all staff and students, rather than a vicious circle where institutions may succeed in the short term but people’s wellbeing is harmed.’

 

In Which We Serve: Universities in Lockdown

In March 2020 we learned the paradox of social distancing. As we offer others the caring gesture of stepping into the street to maintain a two meter gap, they thank us, and each acknowledges the other’s humanity.

Distancing has pervaded our workplaces as many are now working from home. As universities move to online teaching, we wonder how social relations will be changed after the virus has left the scene. None of us quite know what will emerge at the end of this period. A thoughtful piece from USS Briefs  has initiated a conversation about possible futures. The only certainty is it would be misguided to act “as if the world in which we drafted our syllabi and exams is the same one when we begin marking, as if we could carry on working just as before”. I predict that face-to-face teaching will be transformed to a greater extent than online practice. Both students and staff will have had time to reflect on what, exactly, they value about the experience of collective learning and living, and what they would like to change.

Along with the NHS and the BBC, universities have garnered new appreciation as institutions which serve the public good. Former minister of state for universities, Chris Skidmore, has been tweeting out regular good news, with current incumbent, Michelle Donelan joining in more recently. Some notable contributions include: epidemiologists at UCL and Oxford have advised the government by modelling the likely spread of COVID19; the universities of Durham, Salford, Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University have donated supplies and specialist testing equipment to the NHS; King’s College, London has developed a hugely useful symptom tracker app which will collect vital data; and the UCL Institute of Education has made available a bank of resources to support children’s online learning.

Another optimistic development is that many universities are realising that this may be the time to build bridges with staff. Working from home with students at a distance, developing online courses with just a week’s notice, these changes have required a huge effort of learning and application from many academics. They are finding that teaching online involves much more than just uploading lecture videos and learning materials to the VLE. It means shifting to a whole new pedagogy and there has been little time to prepare. The COVID19 campus closures followed hard on the UCU 4 Fights strikes. Goodwill was scarce amid a commitment to ongoing action short of a strike (ASOS). Many UCU members have welcomed the way some universities have sought to alleviate the financial pressure (particularly acute for staff on precarious fixed-term or zero hours contracts) by spreading out the pay deductions resulting from strike action. Newcastle, King’s College, St Andrews, Birkbeck, Southampton and Ulster are among those universities where managers have waived or suspended strike deductions. King’s College and Cardiff Met have also pledged to support hourly-paid and fixed-term staff. These and other accommodations have been documented by Andrew Chitty in a sort of informal league table of university decency.

Other universities have extended consideration to the personal circumstances of staff in this unique situation of home confinement. The VC of the University of York wrote “I want to reassure you we understand additional responsibilities that many of you now have…Do work when you can”. King’s College has been equally understanding: “if you have young children at home when the schools are closed or have other caring responsibilities and are working at home, we know that you may be unable to commit to a full day of work. We understand that and thank you for your best efforts. You do not need to take annual leave to make up any perceived difference. Do what you can, ask for help and take care of your family. If you are unable to work at all because of caring for dependants, please talk to your line manager about dependant’s leave”.  Meanwhile, Newcastle University has offered a paid four-day week to staff in April.

But here let me channel Captain Kinross (played by Noel Coward) as he addresses the ship’s company in the 1942 film In Which We Serve. “Nearly all universities performed as I would expect; however, some didn’t”. There is a disappointing roll call of institutions which still seem to prioritise the settling of scores while remaining deeply wedded to the notion that full productivity must be sustained, even as the REF research audit has been postponed. The Universities of Leeds, Reading and Liverpool have insisted on deducting all strike pay in one month, while Leeds has suggested that staff should use annual or unpaid leave if they face caring duties during the lockdown. ( Update, University of Liverpool UCU have now confirmedthat strike deductions have been postponed until May or staggered for those who require it). Members of higher education’s casualized workforce were among the first to experience brutality when news on Twitter reported that Sussex University will be terminating all temporary contracts. Newcastle also chose the first week of lockdown to issue redundancy notices, with apparently no word of recognition of the extreme misfortune of receiving this when there is no possibility of pursuing other opportunities in higher education for some months. In this case, ‘kind regards’ must be received with very bitter irony.

Newcastle redundancy 1

 

The horror of this communication was not lost on the students of some of these young, precarious lecturers who made clear how much they appreciated their efforts. This letter to the Vice Chancellor, Chris Day, is so impressive it is worth publishing in full.

Newcastle reundancy responseNewcastle resundancy student response 2

The University of Sheffield has taken a helpful approach to casual workers, setting out a range of actions designed to sustain these workers through the crisis. Sheffield UCU COVID19 negotiating team, as well as long-term campaigning, have achieved a good result here. 

Many of us worry that some universities might seize a moment of ‘disaster capitalism’ to carry out ‘restructures’ or might opportunistically recruit from a reduced pool of students, thus impoverishing other institutions. The logistics of funding universities, both teaching and research, may require some temporary measures – even a one-off block grant. Where new private providers figure within such a policy may prove controversial. Chris Skidmore today is asking for a doubling of research QR money over the next five years

Centralised policies on allocating new students may be required this year and there is now a debate over a return to the student numbers cap if some universities are to avoid financial oblivion, and reduction in opportunities for the 2020 entry cohort. Even more destabilizing is the likely collapse of recruitment of international students leaving some Russell Group universities very exposed.

When universities do gear up for the new academic year, whether that should be in September or January, they will require a spirit of common purpose. The institutions which succeed will be those that inspire confidence among staff and students. Their leaders will have offered support and kindness in harsh times. They will be patient and understanding as people recover their mental and physical health. Perhaps universities will abandon concerns with league tables and competition, metrics and toxic work culture, and recognize they exist as institutions of teaching and research ‘in which we serve’ the public good.