“We are in a period of transition,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil in 1934, “but a transition towards what? No one has the slightest idea.” She might have been talking about the UK higher education sector in 2020, although, to be fair, the fate of Europe during the rise of the Nazis was perhaps an even more significant question. Still, as Trotsky might have put it, the sector is in a state of permanent revolution, and it would be nice to have some idea where we are heading.
With the academic year about to start, it’s natural that our Covid-19 related attention is focused on how to make the campus safe both for students, who mostly think they are indestructible, and staff, who know they are not. We wait with bated breath (both for safety reasons and in anticipation) to see how the reopenings go.
But, in my normal foolhardiness, I want to take a longer look, and consider how the pandemic could bring longer-term changes to the sector. I speculate, of course.
Optimism first. Perhaps one way or another, by this time next year the pandemic of 2020 may be lining up to take its place in the history of medical control. Perhaps, alongside meningitis and glandular fever, Covid-19 will still be a constant concern on campus, but not in a way that disrupts ordinary life.
What will we have learned from our year of living differently? It’s remarkable how many regulations have been torn up. Centuries’ worth of committee work has been bypassed in the blink of a bifocaled eye. Sit-down exams, for example, have been replaced with open-book assignments downloaded, uploaded, and distributed electronically. Will we ever go back to exam halls, and white vans winding through town laden with boxes of scripts?
More significant still is the replacement of the live lecture with recordings. This is the dream of the “flipped classroom”, where face-to-face time with academic staff is reserved for discussion, perhaps in smaller groups, with the show-piece lecture replaced by recordings. So far flipping the classroom has been tried only on a small scale by enthusiasts. This year we’ll see what happens when even the sceptics have to try hard to make it work. It may be here to stay, with wide implications for teaching practice.
But is this all a mad, crazy dream? An effective vaccine is still more hope than expectation, and whatever safety measures we make on campus, students are out of our sight most of the time. Consequently, it’s likely the virus will make regular campus appearances next year, and no one will quite believe announcements of a farewell tour.
A dismal year of universities opening for a few weeks, locking down, reopening, improvising, shuffling, and putting on a brave face is a grim model for the future. An era of online-only degrees is more likely. If so, it’s hard to see why the UK would need so many providers, especially when the Open University has decades of head start on distance learning. A varied market could develop, with a couple of bulk providers offering cheap courses with little interaction and feedback, some mid-market operators replicating a standard university experience, and a few expensive, premium brands competing to provide a customised education and lustre to the CV, perhaps with residential bubbles of students and staff for a few months a year.
Notice what’s likely to happen? Over the last decades the HE sector has worked hard to try to improve access and inclusion. Of course, we more often notice the problems, yet it’s easy to forget how much has changed even within a single lifetime. But as everyone scrambles to protect their own interests, inequalities will magnify. Without decent internet and a quiet place to study at home, even the cheapest online courses are out of range. Those from wealthy families will be able to pick off the best options.
Left to itself, the world drifts into ever increasing inequality. Mitigating privilege and exclusion is hard work. It takes enormous attention, effort, and resources. In a crisis it’s twice as difficult and expensive. But it becomes all the more essential.