Just imagine the possibilities

Academia jettisoned decades of orthodoxy about how to teach and research overnight when the pandemic hit. What’s stopping it making other transformations?

February 18, 2021
A phoenix rising from flames
Source: Getty

It is a powerful and alluring idea that cataclysmic events can be catalysts for radical and rejuvenating change.

The phoenix rising from the ashes has enduring appeal – from the romance of ancient Greek folklore to the more prosaic world of post-92 university branding (Coventry University’s phoenix logo reflects the city’s re-emergence after bombing during the Second World War).

So it is inevitable that, amid the destruction wrought by Covid-19, we ask ourselves how we can turn a period of global catastrophe into a new start.

Inevitable, but still fraught with danger – not least of which is that good intentions can turn into fatuous buzzwords.

“Covid-19 has accelerated a commitment to vacuous words and phrases,” writes Tara Brabazon, dean of graduate research at Flinders University, in her contribution to this week’s cover story – a collection of ideas about which of higher education’s intractable problems might in fact be tractable, post-pandemic.

She has a point, and it is not just about linguistic laziness – talk of “building back better” and engineering a “new normal” can provide easy cover for the absence of an actual plan and a quiet return to an unsatisfactory status quo.

But let’s suspend the cynicism for a moment and acknowledge that, for universities, the crisis has blown up some of the assumptions about what can change when necessary.

It was with this in mind that our commissioning editor asked six contributors a simple question: if universities could turn on a sixpence and shift their entire teaching model online overnight, then what else might be possible?

The suggestions put forward range from tackling science’s reproducibility crisis to workplace inequality; from dealing with bureaucratic bloat to taking university teaching seriously, in terms of professional practice and development.

There is an acceptance that Covid-19 is a unique situation, and that just because necessity is the mother of invention that does not necessarily translate into a broader agenda for change.

The shift online, writes one, reflected the universal reality back in early 2020 that “in these circumstances wisdom states that we should, to the best of our abilities, face the music and dance”.

But there is also pragmatic optimism that this moment in time can provide clarity around the opportunities that are there to be seized – a sense, as Brabazon puts it, that “we have momentum for change”.

Elsewhere in this week’s issue, we have an in-depth interview with the economist Mariana Mazzucato, who has spent recent years trying to spark fundamental changes to the way societies address the biggest challenges they face.

She makes a compelling case for a return to fundamental questions, such as “what is the role of government?”, and that it is time to let go of outdated narratives about how public and private sectors operate together because capitalism is “stuck”, without answers to global questions.

Yet Mazzucato reports finding “ideology so strong in many people’s heads that as soon as you talk about reviving and rethinking the state it’s: ‘Oh, she’s talking about the 1970s.’”

Old habits die hard, and ingrained ideologies never die at all, it seems.

And that, perhaps, is the problem for higher education as it tries to harness the “momentum for change” offered up by the crisis of the past 12 months, and the opportunity to address those problems that are endlessly debated but never addressed.

As Chris Chambers, professor of neuroscience at Cardiff University, puts it in our cover story, these problems are often attributed to “the system”. “But having seen what we can achieve in the face of Covid-19, it is clearer than ever that ‘the system’ is nothing more than a set of choices we make as a community.”

This is another attractive idea: that change is just a matter of making different choices as a collective. It sounds so simple, but experience suggests that this is often the hardest thing of all to achieve.

Chambers, though, is less jaded, so let’s end with his optimism: “If academics can contribute to online teaching within a matter of days – not to mention making major contributions to developing vaccines within a matter of months – we should never again doubt our ability to change.”

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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