Why aren’t UK universities taking a lead in this crisis?

Now is the time for the higher education sector to get ahead of questionable government policy, say Chik Collins, Peter Jones and Marjorie McCrory 

March 24, 2020
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No hindisight is required at this moment in the coronavirus emergency. We knew Covid-19 was coming. Writing in The Guardian, the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, indicated that the “warning to the world” had been sounded in January by the “rapid and rigorous” work of Chinese researchers. And the World Health Organization had told us how to address it: immediate radical social distancing and continuous and systematic testing of healthcare workers and community.

But the UK government opted for “herd immunity” – let the virus infect up to 60 per cent of the population and “take it on the chin”. The developing legacy of our leaders’ failure to listen, learn, prepare and respond proportionately is painfully clear.

But what about the UK’s universities? Is it too much to expect that they could have quickly raised an independent, critical, and perhaps even collective, voice in the face of such dangerous complacency? Could they have done more to marshal the knowledge and expertise of their academics to present a challenge to the government’s failure in policymaking? And could they not have assumed a leading role at the start of the crisis in implementing and promoting, in their own institutions, the social distancing measures that were required and were inevitably applied much later?

It’s not like the the fallacy of it all wasn’t being condemned by universities’ own communities. The herd immunity strategy met a tsunami of outrage, criticism and condemnation from academic researchers and specialists. The British Society for Immunology “voiced significant questions” about the government’s coronavirus strategy and more than 200 experts from universities and research centres across the UK signed an open letter on 14 March condemning the government’s response.

And now researchers from Imperial College are being awarded the ultimate credit for the late, and still inadequate, policy reversal that was eventually announced by Boris Johnson on 16 March.

But in the weeks that the calamity was heading our way, the higher education sector did not act with any real initiative or decisiveness, either in influencing public health policy or in getting ahead of government guidance in order to make its own institutions safe.

A coordinated public mobilisation of the sector around a clear-sighted, research-based response strategy might have forced a change to government policy on the 2nd, or even the 9th, of March.  

When, late on the evening of 18 March, the chief executive of Universities UK started to tweet about universities’ responses to the crisis and “taking action to support their local communities”, it sounded defensive.

Universities are also responsible for the education and training of doctors and nurses, our front line in the fight against the virus, but have so far failed to raise their institutional voices in unison to demand that health workers get priority testing.

At the same time, face-to-face teaching, meetings, and events continued for too long, as did the demands for attendance at work when it was not critically required, placing staff, students and wider populations at avoidable risk.

At some institutions, academic staff commendably followed advice from the Universities and College Union to move immediately to online teaching, only to be admonished and threatened by managers for disrupting business as usual.

Perhaps it was the prospect of students – especially international students – looking for a refund, or a suspension of their payments for the duration of any shut down, that lay behind universities’ institutional inertia?

Our institutions make far-reaching claims about global leadership and influencing policy, about “transforming societies” and “changing the world” through research and knowledge exchange. But in the face of the most serious global crisis in the past 75 years, university leaders have, by and large, been prepared to sit behind the curve and wait for guidance from the government. A timorous herd mentality has substituted the moral and intellectual independence that commitment to knowledge and learning should bring.

It might have helped if institutional heads and governing bodies had better relationships and more open dialogue with their staff. Certainly, the recent industrial action by UK academics has exposed the ongoing deterioration in the fabric of institutional life.

But there is still time for university leaders to wake up and contribute positively to the emergency in ways that may redeem earlier failings. The Covid-19 crisis calls for urgent reassessment of what universities should be for, who they serve and how they might be led, if they are to meet the vital needs of society currently facing immense dangers and threats.

Chik Collins is professor of applied social science and rector (vice-chancellor) of the University of the Faroe Islands.

Peter E. Jones is reader in language and communication at Sheffield Hallam University.

Marjorie McCrory is senior lecturer in career guidance and development at the University of the West of Scotland.

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Reader's comments (6)

An excellent intervention. Universities have undergone such a process of bureaucratic degeneration that they believe their own Newspeak: leading is following; civic responsibility is corporate neglect. No need to listen to those employees who specialise in relevant areas and might suggest something effective in the real world because the parallel world of quasi-religious and self-referential proxy metrics and targets is indifferent to any truth value. Bureaucratic rationality runs rampant. Time to reclaim the universities for science, scholarship and social responsibility.
I concur, but I think it is even worse: it is the unholy conflation of a bureaucratic-commercial logic that characterizes the "marketized" university of today. The enforcement of "market-liberalism" requires ever more "illiberal" authoritarian measures: that is the great paradox of our current political (and economic) ideology.
This article is a great cri de coeur, articulates the problems with UK universities very well, but how should we proceed to fix things? UK universities are deeply divided, at all levels. They fight each other for commercial advantage, and fight within themselves for internally-allocated resources. The UCU treats management as the enemy within, and doesn't recognise Government as the enemy without. Can UUK step up to the plate, or do we need a new organisation?
That is the clear objective of the many "reforms" that have been brought in over the years and have shaped the "sector" that we have now. Mission accomplished; Divide Et Impera! UUK is part of the problem and cannot therefore provide a meaningful and sustainable solution.
OK, so UUK is not part of the solution. Take a look at the Council for the Defence of British Universities, seems individuals can become members, I think I'll join up... Any other ideas?
It seems to me that there is a common malaise, not confined to universities, to sit back bleating that 'something must be done' but not being prepared to actually DO something. This has been evident in the damage being done by Brexit: many sectors of society have whined about potential adverse effects but none have been prepared to step up, make arrangements with their EU counterparts, and then tell the government 'This is how it is going to work'.