Higher education should harness the senses of togetherness and urgency

The pandemic’s demolition of barriers and bureaucracy clears the way for a better higher education sector, says Pat Tissington 

September 27, 2020
A computer running Zoom
Source: iStock

Until quite recently, UK students were largely uninvolved in the creation of their education. Even in the halcyon days of good funding in the 1960s, students were expected to be grateful for whatever their lecturers decided to deliver. I remember, as a student rep in the early 1990s, how my attempt to protest about insufficient chairs in the lecture room (radical!) fell on deaf ears; as I was unceremoniously shown the door in the dean’s office, his parting shot was: “You can take me on – but you will lose.”

I hope those days are long gone, with co-creation (ugly word, really great idea) now being normal. But while there is substantial evidence that the UK’s higher education sector is probably the best in the world, these days it feels as if there are significant rifts within it because none of the stakeholders – academics, professional staff, students, parents, employers or even government – actually like the way that higher education is organised in the UK.

Students have the financial burden. Parents see their children saddled with debt. Employers talk of graduates not being “work ready”. Successive governments have made clear they don’t like the way we go about our business. And many who work in the sector dislike the marketisation and commoditisation of education. The problem is that there is also no agreement on how the status quo should change.

Since March, however, we have been brought together by the pandemic. I have seen first-hand (and heard many examples from elsewhere) of how, in the process of finding ways through the massive challenges, we have created a real community. I have seen how students have become ever more closely involved with decisions about how their courses will be delivered. We have somehow ensured that last year’s cohort could graduate and worked incredibly closely and amazingly hard to make sure that this year’s intake will still get the best possible experience of university.

There is also a sense of community within the sector as we activate networks to find solutions, learning from each other as we make the best of a tough environment. It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, it has never been easy! How do you run courses wholly or partly online when both staff and students clearly prefer face-to-face teaching? How the hell do you deliver two-metre-distanced chemistry labs? How do you run online exams without leaving the door wide open to cheating or disadvantaging students from non-traditional backgrounds? And then there was the A-level results fiasco…

Being physically isolated from colleagues made such challenges even harder to deal with. We’ve worked from home, often in less than ideal conditions, trying to keep home schooling going and still feeling incredibly guilty about the lack of time and energy we were able to dedicate to it. Many of us found our jobs changed completely overnight – as did the hours! But, through it all, the virtually enhanced bonds between professional and academic staff, and between staff and students, have sustained us.

I have also seen a complete change in pace. I have always found that working at a university was at least as demanding as any other job I have had, but I have also found that trying to make changes often feels like wading through treacle. But, since March, a transformation has occurred. Meetings that used to take a month or more to arrange now happen within days. Decisions have been made on the spot, rather than doing endless rounds of committees. Colossal innovation has been brought in at breakneck pace. Solutions and compromises were reached quickly, kept in review, then changed where necessary.

With the immediate crisis subsiding a little and preparations complete for the new academic year, we are now taking stock. And already a new challenge is upon us, with disagreements between unions and university management about the return to campus and whether any teaching should be face to face this term. That issue has only become starker in the past week as Covid-19 outbreaks at Scottish universities have hit the headlines amid rapidly rising infection rates in the general population – but I am convinced that the experience of the past months will help us deal with this – and whatever the next curve balls might be.

And I, for one, want to make sure that we take the lessons of the past six months to heart and keep the community growing. If we can hold on to our sense of shared purpose and of urgency, then we can make significant and lasting changes to the way the sector operates and conducts itself that all stakeholders can endorse.

Pat Tissington is academic director (employability and skills) at the University of Warwick.

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