Universities cannot flag in the pursuit of change for good

This tumultuous year has shown universities can adapt rapidly and radically, but the reimagining mustn’t pause amid continuing disruptive pressures

November 26, 2020
People on screens two people standing laughing.
Source: Reuters

For a decade, my commute into central London accounted for a sizeable chunk of daily life.

An hour at the start and end of each working day, which was both a source of stress and irritation, and (I now realise) a decompression chamber separating the office from life at home.

And then, suddenly, it was gone. It would be a stretch to say that I miss it, but I do miss certain things about it. For example, I’ve just downloaded the audiobook of Barack Obama’s new autobiography, A Promised Land – where am I going to find 29 hours of listening time now?

This year has taught us all that no matter how constant things seem, change can happen quickly.

In the first months of 2020, that was cataclysmic change for the worse as the coronavirus spread and the world locked down.

In the past couple of weeks, vaccine breakthroughs and political events have given sudden cause for optimism that 2021 could be very different from the state of limbo we’ve been trapped in this year.

Of course, the received wisdom has long been that universities themselves are incapable of rapid change. They are slow, sluggish, afraid to try new things. Shifting a university is like moving a graveyard – you can’t expect much help from the inhabitants.

Well, what a load of rubbish that has proven to be.

And yet, there is a difference between moving quickly in a crisis – as universities did brilliantly to flip into emergency remote mode – and implementing lasting change for the better.

That is the challenge now, and it is a process that Times Higher Education wants to help with however we can.

One way is with a new online platform we are launching.

We are calling it THE Campus: a dedicated space for academics to share best practice, resources, advice and guidance on any and all issues relating to the shift to online teaching and learning.

The platform is already live on our website in beta form – do have a look and get involved, as the whole point is to create a community of professional practice and enable peer-to-peer learning.

If universities are to redefine their own futures, it will also take brave leadership from those setting the strategic direction at the top.

I was talking the other day to a vice-chancellor of a radical persuasion (they do exist), and he voiced a concern that some of his peers had become too focused on brand and had forgotten about their mission. Whether or not you agree, universities are fortunate that they do have missions, along with defining values and principles, which is a great strength at a time of transition.

Speaking in a recent webinar, the former UK universities minister Jo Johnson also identified the need for “leadership of an extraordinary calibre over the next 12 months”.

“We are asking our senior teams in universities to manage a short-term crisis and create new forms of provision, at the same time as preparing for significant structural changes that are going to play out in the next three to five years,” he said.

“That is the disaggregation of the higher education proposition, more flexible learning, more modular funding, more opportunities for students to accumulate and transfer credit from one institution to another, and a breaking-down of the barriers between FE and HE.”

As we report in our news pages, one could add to the list the ongoing pressure universities face from governments – Donald Trump has been fired as culture-warrior-in-chief, but Emmanuel Macron’s growing hostility to universities in France shows that the virus is not the only thing that has spread.

Is there a vaccination against such hostility? Sadly not. But there are ways in which the reimagining of higher education can help to build defences. Tackling inequality is surely first among these – it is the scourge of our time, exacerbated by Covid-19, painfully highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, and something universities can and should be directly responsible for addressing.

If we are entering an era of supercharged change, then let’s make this one of the top priorities.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Change, for good

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