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.