by Warren Bebbington
This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020. Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.
Faced with COVID-19’s array of challenges, the role of leadership in a university has never been more taxing. Many university leaders facing enrolment declines in 2020 move quickly to deal with immediate financial threats: to delay capital works, to cancel unviable courses, to curtail non-core expenditure and administrative costs, to consolidate management roles, reduce executive remuneration, and to cooperate with unions in introducing salary and recruitment freezes.
But increasingly the minds of university leaders are occupied with the future. For in the shadow of the pandemic, they have a pivotal opportunity to rethink their institutions. Can a university continue with multiple aims of research, professional education, job training, economic advice and community engagement, or should it instead identify and focus more on its most distinctive, most outstanding activity? Would this be on its strongest fields of research? Or on excellent teaching? Or on community engagement?
The pandemic’s consequence of having suddenly drawn online learning from the fringe to the centre of delivery will profoundly affect this consideration of the way forward. With online learning now at the core of teaching, a new balance between physical and online modes will need to be identified across the campus offerings. A university needs to identify the full array of activities needed for instruction and how they might blend f2f and online in a hybrid delivery mode. It has been said lab experiments are impossible online, yet many secondary schools in the pandemic used virtual experiment software in science subjects with success. Methods need developing to better manage staff-student interaction, class discussion, group projects, data sharing, and fieldwork. Even the extra-curricular campus life can be drawn in, as there are ways student clubs, societies, perhaps even sporting fixtures can develop with online components.
Moreover, the financial plight of so many universities makes the traditional but fundamentally inefficient calendar for use of campus facilities less defensible. Universities should consider adopting genuinely year-round operations, beyond the marginal use of summer semesters – to three full semesters, from which student could choose two to enrol in, or accelerate their progress through all three. Full-time faculty should be able to elect whether they teach a full load across two semesters or reduce their load across all three.
A changed F2F/remote balance of delivery will also involve reconceiving the physical university: abandoning the construction of more new lecture theatre and classroom buildings and instead repurposing existing buildings to interactive learning commons, innovation hubs with industry, or student-led learning spaces. Moreover, it may be that sessions for students off-campus at rented neighborhood schools or community centres should be added, where small groups of students can come together locally rather than travelling to campus, a far less costly arrangement than providing new campus buildings. Meetings in rented space off-shore might be needed in significant quantity too.
Undeniably, all teaching faculty will need enhanced development programs in pedagogical skills, covering instructional design blending F2F and technology, introducing online learning practices and current digital tools, and considering the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous modes for each subject. These development programs will need to consider how to motivate students online, how to promote deeper rather than superficial understanding of content, and how to develop online assessment and feedback. It is also time to promote research in cognitive learning more broadly, gathering empirical data for different methods of instruction, and developing a reflective future teaching practice for the hybrid environment. IT development and support of a campus’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) will need expansion, and staff support networks in online pedagogy will need incentivising.
A university’s increased complexity may now be a weakness, as it strives to serve too many aims—to educate for the professions, to train for jobs, to conduct research, to offer expertise to local and national governments, and to aid the economic development of each university’s local region or the nation. Trying to satisfy a “multi-varsity” set of goals adds costs and increased size of a kind that is now demonstrably unsustainable. And slavishly tailoring a campus offering to the rankings might be questioned: better for a university to define its mission more sharply, then choose its own suite of appropriate performance measures.
Narrowing a university’s mission leads to the question of right-sizing the university itself. The future is likely smaller than the large, complex multi-varsity of the past – each university should focus on carving out more sharply a truly distinctive character and appropriate size for its future. Universities will need to play to their greatest strengths – to focus on a limited array of first-class research areas; or on distinction in teaching and learning, graduate or undergraduate (not necessarily both).
Prospectively, there is no stronger principle for restoring financial sustainability than a focus on a smaller core; reducing administration costs to match; and freeing up capital, not just by abandoning new building programs by selling property no longer essential in a hybrid learning environment, but also by repurposing existing buildings, renting local or offshore space where F2F teaching demands it, while instead investing strategically in online infrastructure, in digital staff upskilling, and in blended course development.
Despite the unprecedented disruption it brought, the 2020 pandemic signalled a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a strategic transformation in universities, toward more differentiated character and missions for each university, and a resizing of each university and its resources to fit new, more focused goals. COVID-19’s wrenching of online learning and digital tools to the core of delivery methods should begin a development towards a menu of hybrid learning modes on most campuses, supported by much more sophisticated preparation for teaching staff in blended learning pedagogy and digital tools. With bold thought and a clear vision, there is every reason for optimism about the future of the university as an enduring institution.
Warren Bebbington is a Professorial Fellow at the L.H. Martin Institute, University of Melbourne, and former Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide. This blog follows a paper presented at the L.H.Martin October Webfest 2020; a fuller treatment of this subject is Warren Bebbington, “Leadership Strategies for a Higher Education Sector in Flux”, Studies in Higher Education (Dec 2020).