from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: digital visitors

May 11.  This morning the President of a European university was talking to me in my sitting room.  Later in the day he returned with two of his senior colleagues. The conversations were joined by a Greek Cypriot, a Frenchwoman, a Croat and a Catalan, all of whom, given the lazy privilege of the British, talked in fluent English.

Last year, before the flood, I agreed to be part of a team organised by the Institutional Evaluation Programme of the European University Association.  IEP maintains a list of international auditors and is commissioned by universities, or sometimes complete university systems, to review their organisation and strategies.  The standard practice is for the team to make two site visits of three or four days and then submit a written report.

The first visit to the current institution should have taken place just as the European lockdowns were imposed.  Instead it was agreed to undertake the exercise remotely, which permits some estimation for the future of conducting international business in such a way.  So far, the gains are:

  • No real loss in the focus of the interviews.
  • No loss in organising the programme, in timing meetings.  Ease of adding new meetings.
  • No problems with the platform, in this case Microsoft Team, which works transnationally, and also enables documents, such as rapidly revised agendas, to be shared between the team members.  Vision better than sound.
  • No time wasted in travel.  In this case it would have taken half a day in each direction, door to door.  So, for the two visits, that’s two days of my life free for reading books, digging the garden etc.
  • No costs to the EUA, and ultimately to the reviewed university, of such travel, plus accommodation and meals during the visit.

And losses:

  • Opportunities for informal discussions amongst the team members as they spend long days together, from breakfast to dinner.  It’s these discussions which inform the next interviews, and frequently frame the final report.
  • Opportunities for intervening in group discussion.  Difficult to catch the eye of the chair, to know when it is, and is not, the moment to make a contribution.
  • Opportunities for spending quality time with interesting academics from the four corners of Europe.
  • Opportunities for travel.  I am one of those odd people who actually enjoy the abstracted solitude of airports and planes, and however tight the schedule, there is always some chance to see faraway cities, and perhaps sample their food [except in Macedonia where every night we were handed a menu in a different restaurant, then served exactly the same pre-ordered meal as before].
  • Opportunities for getting a physical feel for the institutions you are visiting.  Turning up at the Macedonian university and being shown the bullet holes from the last civil war did help the team to understand the institution’s strategic priorities.
  • Opportunities for my wife to move about our house freely while I am working.  It was built in around 1450, before it seemed necessary to soundproof one room from another. 

Days of online conversations in front of me.  I rather fear that the opportunities in terms of efficiency, if not pleasure [except Macedonia], are going to outweigh the losses.  This project will be completed in terms of its purpose, but with no larger gain.  Would I do it again, given that I am free not to?   No.

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