from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: children of the aftermath

May 13.  As much as we are all wondering how we will get through to the end, we are also contemplating how we will be changed by the experience.  From hospitals to universities, managers of complex, rule-bound organisations are astonished at how behaviours set in stone for decades have been transformed in a matter of weeks, and are speculating about how long such a metabolism of change can continue.

There is another way of considering the aftermath.  I have a new great nephew, born on May 1st in a village on the shores of Loch Lomond, a great niece due next month in York, and if all goes well I shall have a new granddaughter, born to my son and his wife towards the end of August in East London.  The brave post-pandemic world will be the one in which these children will take their first steps, and form their identities and ambitions.

In this regard, I have a shared experience.  I was born early in 1949, when Britain was still in the midst of reconstruction after VE day which we have just celebrated.  The bomb damage in the major cities was yet to be cleared.  Rationing was to continue for a further five years.  Whilst we now celebrate the heroic construction of the welfare state, life in those years was hard.  The winter of 1946-7 was one of the coldest on record, causing and compounded by serious fuel shortages.

Looking back, what strikes me most about my childhood was how much my perspective was cast towards the future.  This was partly because my own family had not suffered greatly in the war.  There were no fatalities, no battlefield injuries still blighting civilian life.  It was partly because I spent my early years in parts of the country which had not experienced physical damage (in Stoke-on-Trent, where my father’s family came from and which we frequently visited, the story was that the Luftwaffe had flown over the city, concluded that it had already been bombed, and passed on). 

And it was partly because as a small child I was the direct and immediate beneficiary of the Welfare State.  I was conceived in the same summer that the NHS began its life.  My father was a junior civil servant, seconded to Blackpool after the war to work on planning the new system, then promoted to run the first office of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in the north midlands town of Banbury and then in Oxford.  I was in every possible way a child of the new provision, and I can still remember walking with my mother to collect my welfare orange juice from the clinic and my reading books from the children’s library next door.  Later came free education all the way up to my Cambridge doctorate.

If I have hope for the new members of my family, it must be based on two aspirations.  Firstly, that they should be lucky in the homes into which they are born, as I was in mine.  Where there has been death from coronavirus, where the outcome of the pandemic is of embittered lives, undermined health, shattered finances, long-term unemployment, it will be so much harder to form confident, optimistic identities. 

Secondly, that we do in fact create a new world in which, once more, the wellbeing of every child, physical and educational, is front and centre of our collective action.  It is a matter of addressing the inequalities which continue to disfigure our society three quarters of a century after the reforms of the 1945 Labour Government.  And is a matter of ensuring, by signs and by facts, that each child feels itself the most important and cared-for person not just in its immediate family, but in all the places in which it develops as a person.  I had that sense in my beginning.  I grew up looking forwards, learning about the Second World War and its suffering only much later, mostly through history books.  Whilst as adults we must never forget what we have lived through this year, these growing children should never be held back by it.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Beetles and Universities …

April 29. The future of universities is a microcosm of the larger debate about the aftermath of the pandemic.  Will the outcome be a couple of years of readjustment, then a continuation of life as before, with a few tweaks to work and leisure and some fading memories of bad times?  Or will there be a fundamental change in the way in which many organisations go about their activities, with new business models, new techniques, new roles for staff?

On April 22 I wrote about an attempt by the Durham Vice Chancellor to get ahead of change.  It has since been rejected by the University senate, as the Guardian reported:

‘The plans, which would also reduce the number of modules taught in person by a quarter in the next academic year, were condemned by the Department of English as “dangerous and damaging to the short- and long-term viability of the university”. The department’s submission to the senate, seen by the Guardian, criticised suggestions from a private education firm consulted on the plans that lecturers would only need six hours training in order to teach online. The document said Cambridge Education Digital’s estimation of the work required to shift learning online displayed no realistic sense of the realities the staffing and technological support required to develop and deliver it. “Training staff to teach effectively online will take far, far more than the six hours indicated,” it added. The submission also warned the plans posed a potential conflict of interest because CEG Digital is owned by private equity group Bridgepoint Capital, whose chief investment officer is a member of Durham’s ‘chancellor’s circle’ of donors.  The plans will now be returned to the university’s council, where they will be redrawn before being returned to the senate.’hig

A welcome dose of common sense by the English Department, and a reminder that universities still retain an element of democratic decision making.

But the problem has not gone away.  In the past week more universities have been projecting imminent deficits as room rents collapse and overseas students disappear.  The sector as a whole has been lobbying the Government for a subsidy, which has generated a hostile reaction in some quarters, not least because many of the most threatened institutions are also in possession of large reserves and extensive research income.  An op. ed. in the Times (27.4.20) welcomed the prospect of closures on the familiar grounds that Vice Chancellors were paid too much, the sector had over-extended, and Bath Spa University was running a degree in contemporary circus.

In fact, where higher education is largely in the public sector, as in Britain and much of Europe, universities are like beetles (allegedly) in a nuclear war, very hard to destroy.  It is said that three of Europe’s 20 universities were closed by the Black Death, but as that pandemic killed between a third and a half of the population, it may be said that the sector got off lightly.  Since then, outright closure has been almost unknown, despite the recent expansion.  It is otherwise in the United States where a large, sometimes corrupt, private sector suffered bankrupticies during the Great Depression and will do so again.

It may be that a few more staff will in future investigate what happens to their teaching when a computer is turned on, and that a few more students will tolerate less face-to-face contact.  Or it may be that the declining eighteen-year-old cohort, the lost overseas students, the accumulated deficits, will force universities to investigate radical change.  The fundamental things still apply.  High quality distance education is very expensive.  Academic staff like talking to students.  And the students go to bricks and mortar universities for a rich social experience and are unlikely to pay £9,000 a year just to sit in their rooms and be taught on their laptops.