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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Reimagining academic conferences: toward a federated model of conferencing

by Dror Etzion, Joel Gehman and Gerald F Davis

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, most academic conferences have shifted to online formats. This disruption to our routines presents a unique opportunity to consider alternative conference configurations. One possibility is that the momentum behind the shift to online conferencing is leading to a future in which gatherings are entirely virtual. At the same time, old habits die hard, and many in the academic community are assuming that a travel-free world is a temporary anomaly, and that very soon researchers will resume convening in person.

Several scenarios for the future of conferencing are possible, and most seem to have benefits but also drawbacks. We begin by identifying some pros and cons of in-person and online conferences. To maximize the positives, we propose a federated model of conferencing that thoughtfully integrates both in-person and online events. This model may help scholars not only to share academic knowledge but also to pursue values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship.

In-person conferences

For those attending, in-person conferences have four basic functions. First, they provide opportunities for intellectual development. Presenters are able to receive feedback on works in progress and are exposed to nascent ideas being pursued by other scholars. Early-career scholars are able to solicit advice, and more established ones are able to test the waters with riskier ideas before investing significant time and effort in preparing journal articles. Second, in-person conferences provide career development opportunities and constitute an important part of the academic job market. Conference presentations add heft to a CV, and provide valuable networking opportunities. Third, in-person conferences provide ample opportunities for ancillary professional activities such as editorial board meetings, professional association gatherings, and in-person collaboration. Fourth, in-person conferences provide opportunities for non-professional activities, such as socializing and sightseeing.   

At the field level, conferences can focus scholarly attention on specific topics, theories, or ideas. They can serve a coordinating function and facilitate collective sensemaking. Sometimes, powerful conference experiences can become field-configuring events that trigger meaningful academic advances. In addition, conference revenues are often the main source of funding for sponsoring associations, providing them the means to pursue other worthy initiatives.

Despite these benefits, in-person conferences do have some notable downsides. Large conferences can be overwhelming and take a significant physical toll due to disrupted biorhythms and jet lag, not to mention long and tightly packed days. Instances of sexual harassment and assault are all too common. Beyond these criminal activities, gender inequality continues to affect conference participation. Conferences also strengthen the status hierarchy, and many lower status participants find themselves on the receiving end of microaggressions and slights. Accessibility also continues to be an issue. Many venues are not easy for disabled academics to navigate. Travel bans prevent many scholars from attending conferences, and travel costs limit attendance to well-resourced scholars, primarily from the Global North. In-person conferences also produce a massive carbon footprint.

Online conferences

The forced shift to online platforms during COVID has addressed some of these downsides of conferences. Online formats promote accessibility by removing barriers associated with travel costs and physical impairment. They also help remove social barriers to participation, as some of the traditional markers of status do not translate well to the online format. Online platforms also promote inclusivity and content-richness. On platforms such as Zoom, it is easier to implement practices to ensure that conversations are not dominated by a few high-status people. For example, text-based chat functions enable participants to formulate questions at their own pace and provide links to helpful materials. They also serve as an archive that can be revisited when participants have more time to engage with the material.

Moreover, because online conferences are not constrained by time and place, they have the potential to promote ongoing engagement. Rather than several intense days, a series of shorter events, spread out over time, might facilitate greater reflection. Online conferences also promote diversity of session formats. Rather than 90-minute panel sessions, it is possible to have sessions as short or as long as people desire. Presentations could be live streamed from research settings, and practitioners who normally do not attend academic conferences could login to sessions that interest them. Online conferences also have timeliness benefits, as researchers do not have to wait to present their work. Likewise, meetings can be convened immediately to address urgent topics (eg COVID).

Yet, online conferences are not without their downsides. Due to low transaction costs, the number of online conferences is proliferating, creating the potential for overload. Online conferences have also led to anomie in the academy. Many yearn for a return to at least some in-person conferences, as the social interaction and random experiences they afford can be energizing. Moreover, the shift to online conferences has exacerbated the digital divide, constraining scholars who live in areas with less well-developed technological infrastructure. Surveillance capitalism is another potential pitfall, as online interactions leave traces that could have repercussions. Gaffes can go viral, and online interactions may be watched and listened to (and misinterpreted) by unintended audiences. Less malicious, but perhaps more insidious, would be a scenario whereby the dreaded teaching evaluation model is applied to conference presentations. Additionally, online conferences may reinforce tribalism in the academy. With a plethora of conferences to choose from, scholars may splinter off into self-reinforcing cliques entrenched around specific research programs, thereby eliminating opportunities for cross-fertilization and creating echo chambers. Gaming the system is another potential problem with the online conference format. Evaluating scholarly impact is a key focus in the academy, and tactics used to boost citation counts or journal ratings could easily translate to online conferences. Winner-takes-all dynamics are likely to ensue.

A federated model of conferencing

Having analysed the pros and cons of both in-person and online conferences, we propose a federated model of conferencing that constitutes the best of both worlds and produces a lighter environmental footprint while promoting equity and inclusion. As an organising principle, federation recognizes the utility of some central authority, but delegates most responsibilities to partially self-governing units which set priorities based on local preferences. Compared to unitary governance, federation embraces experimentation and fosters learning across units, thereby striking an optimal balance between scale and autonomy.

In a federated conferencing model, organising, decision-making, and participation would be pushed to the regional level while maintaining global coherence. Regional conferences that are centrally located and accessible by public transport would be easier on both attendees (by reducing jet lag and travel costs) and the planet (by reducing the carbon footprint of travel). Smaller regional conferences could provide opportunities for human contact that reduce anomie without being overwhelming. They would still enable senior scholars to participate on panels and pursue ambitious research programs while providing junior scholars and PhD students with valuable networking and career opportunities. Regional affiliation that stops short of tribalism also could support the development and adaptation of solutions to local circumstances. For instance, a regional conference in the North American Rust Belt would likely yield scholarship with different underpinnings, datasets, and points of emphasis than one in Central America. Regional conferences also may promote greater engagement across different academic fields and with non-academic participants.

With foresight and planning, such a federated model could strengthen the global academic community. For example, global meetings could be held synchronously across several regional hubs, thereby enabling access to both region-specific and global content. Hybridization within (ie questions submitted in-person and via text) and between (ie global and regional) presentations would enable participants to customise the extent of their physical and virtual participation and support an equitable global community. A federated model also could facilitate the establishment of local communities around research interests or other facets of identity, thereby providing valuable sources of support, particularly for scholars who feel isolated. Robust online platforms could support ongoing engagement among like-minded peers and strengthen their voices within the academy. Finally, a federated model could encourage relatively low-risk experimentation with other formats (eg unconferences, PechaKuchas), and a variety of other online and offline gatherings.

Conclusion

COVID has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on and potentially reshape the current conferencing model to better reflect values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship. As a tangible manifestation of the spirit of the academic community, conferences serve as a bellwether of our profession. A federated conferencing model has the potential to maximize the benefits of the in-person and online formats, thereby strengthening the academy, now and into the future.

Reference: Etzion, D, Gehman, J, Davis, GF (2021) ‘Reimagining academic conferences: Toward a federated model of conferencing’ Management Learning, 41: 429–442 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/13505076211019529

Dror Etzion is an associate professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, and an associate member of the Bieler School of Environment. His research program focuses on grand challenges: the unyielding, intractable problems that characterize the Anthropocene.

Joel Gehman is Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Management and Alberta School of Business Chair in Free Enterprise at the University of Alberta. His research examines strategic, technological, and institutional responses to grand challenges related to sustainability and values concerns.

Jerry Davis is the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Management and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His latest work is on reining in corporate power and alternatives to shareholder capitalism.

Paul Temple


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“Look, Viktor, what I meant was…”

by Paul Temple

Viktor Orban is the only autocratic national leader I’ve faced across a meeting table. In those days of course, back in the ‘90s, he wasn’t the Hungarian Prime Minister: he and his Fidesz party had barely emerged from post-communist student politics (the name is an abbreviation of Alliance of Young Democrats – now a deeply misleading title). But the British Council in Budapest had already marked him out as a coming man in Hungarian politics and wanted him to hear, amongst other things, our thoughts on university reform in the country.

Looking back, several things occur. One is to note the impressive talent-spotting abilities of the British Council’s Country Director, who correctly identified Orban’s leadership potential when there wasn’t much to go on. True, the expectation was that his future would be as a progressive politician in a liberal society, rather than as the populist boss of what is close to being a one-party state. Still, you can’t win them all. A second point is that perhaps Orban was paying more attention than we realised as we rabbited on about universities needing autonomy to support both academic effectiveness and their roles in a pluralist society (that kind of thing, anyway). A third point is to be careful what you wish for (or, in this case, propose).

A major restructuring of Hungarian universities is now being planned by the Orban government, with the supposed aim of removing them from direct state control by establishing foundations which will own each university’s resources, to be controlled by independent supervisory boards. This is clever: Hungarian government spokespeople present it as a move to make Hungarian universities resemble leading research universities elsewhere, with greater independence promoted through institutional self-government. In other words, more or less what we were suggesting in that British Council meeting all those years ago.

But in university governance, as in most of life, context is all. What many Hungarian academics expect is that these supervisory boards won’t be independent at all: they will, argues Professor Jozsef Palinkas, former President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, be agents for the “ideological control” of universities by the ruling party. Orban has already made it clear that those with what he calls “internationalist” or “globalist” views will not become board members: only those with “nationalist” views will be eligible, which I think we can take to mean views indistinguishable from Orban’s own. (If you want to know what Orban means by “internationalist”, look up his conspiracy theory-laden feud with George Soros.)

Once established, these boards will become self-perpetuating, appointing future members in the same mould, excluding any possible dissenting voices. This structure has been written into the Hungarian constitution (you can’t say that university governance isn’t taken seriously in Hungary) which means that a two-thirds parliamentary majority will be needed to change it. This is possible of course, but given Fidesz’s control of much of the economy, national media, and the judiciary, unlikely. Expect an outflow of independent-minded Hungarian academics.

Most governments claim to prize university autonomy – who knows, some may actually mean it – but, around the world, there are many recent examples of intervention when this autonomy doesn’t seem to be delivering what the politicians in power consider to be the right answers. Universities might perhaps take increased governmental pressures as a backhanded compliment: governments allowed universities to go their own ways when they thought they didn’t really matter, but now they think they do matter (or at least, can be targeted in a confected culture war), they seek to control them. I expect that Orban does think that Hungarian universities are too important to be left to operate outside his web of state/party control: another piece of civil society’s structure has to be destroyed.

I was going to end with a weak joke about wanting to take back what I said all those years ago about university autonomy – but, truly, there’s nothing amusing in seeing how democracies die.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His new book on university space and place will appear next year. Possibly. His blog appears at https://srheblog.com/category/srhe-news-blog/

Marcia Devlin


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Making space for compassion

by Marcia Devlin

As is the case in many countries, the COVID pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Australian universities. While many universities are now beginning to experiment with ‘hybrid’ models that combine online and face-to-face teaching and learning, efforts are tentative. Executives and staff are nervous about committing to what many students are increasingly telling us they want – a ‘normal’ university student experience with on-campus components.

This nervousness is well-founded. Our vaccine rollout is not rolling, the federal and state governments are blaming each other, and we have had to have another snap lockdown just this week. Ensuring ‘COVID-safe’ campuses in these circumstances is tricky and, not to put too fine a point on it, connected to potential life and death scenarios.

International borders remain closed. International students – so important to Australian universities and their finances – are not allowed into the country. The current Education Minister gave a speech about the future of international students this week. It was invitation only but from what can be gleaned from social media commentary from those fortunate enough to secure an invitation, it didn’t leave audience members brimming with confidence about the immediate future.

In this set of circumstances, it is challenging to focus on the core university ‘businesses’ of teaching and research. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that those providing the education and research are human beings who are themselves living in and through the pandemic. The work of academics and professionals in universities is complex, messy, deeply human and relies on individual passion and goodwill as well as qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience.

I attended a seminar recently at one of my alma maters, Macquarie University, led by a well-known Australian author, Hugh McKay: the importance of compassion was central. Arguing that the most significant thing about us as people is that we share a common humanity, that we humans all belong to a social species, that we are “hopeless” in isolation and that we need others to nurture and sustain us, McKay underscored the importance of compassion, kindness and simply being nice to one another in our current shared pandemic context.

I’m not sure about other SRHE readers, but compassion and kindness aren’t topics I’ve often heard discussed in universities in my 30 years in the sector. McKay suggested the pandemic has been a mass experiment around what happens to people when they are isolated. The results have included more anxiety, more suicidal ideation, more domestic violence, among many other negative outcomes. But also more time for introspection and for deep consideration of what is important to us. Many of us have more clearly understood how crucial our social and personal connections are.

McKay proposes that many of us have previously found useful hiding places in ambition, IT devices and consumerism, which have promoted individualism and competitiveness and a greater focus on ourselves than on our role in families, communities and society. As I reflected on university life, and life more generally, I couldn’t help but think he had a point.

As we co-create the ‘COVID-normal’ university, I wonder if we might all find a bigger space for our humanity, our compassion and our kindness to each other. Not only might that bring a better experience of work in universities for ourselves and those around us, the quality and impact of our education and research might also improve as a result.

Former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and an Adjunct Professor at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

An interesting follow-up to the item last time on research into not doing something. The German government put out a TV message featuring two couch potatoes…doing nothing, and advocating staying on the couch as a contribution to not spreading the Covid-19 infection. Somebody has a sense of humour.

On the pandemic, one group that has emerged with credit is the research community, the speed of decision making and the extent of international co-operation in sequencing the genetic code of the virus, using the code to design a vaccine and then developing it in record time. I suggest that by the end of 2021 the number of lives saved by the actions of researchers will be greater than the number lost through the actions and inactions of politicians. Experts have gained in respect. On the other hand, in this country…

On a (perhaps) less contentious issue, closer to members’ interests, I recommend the book edited by Stephen Gorard and published by Routledge: Getting Evidence into Education. Evaluating the routes to policy and practice. He has a salutary listing in the final chapter of barriers to the widespread use of high quality evidence. First is the regrettable lack of quality in research, with the growth of work he identifies as ‘small-scale, uninventive, journalistic or [only] purportedly theoretical work’ lacking scientific replicability. Second is the low ability or willingness to communicate findings to users, which is now improving, possibly because of the impact factor in REF funding. On the other side, he questions whether users really appreciate and want to use good evidence, particularly when it runs counter to values that underpin ideology. Finally, ‘teachers are still largely unaware of the availability of good evidence’ or lack the authority or resources to make changes in practice, and ‘school leaders often appear content to plan school improvement without referring to robust evidence. In my experience, much of that is also true in higher education, as well as in government policy making for the sector.

The latest data on membership of REF panels, issued in December, show that, despite government commitment to diversity and levelling up, the academic capitalists among the elite universities still control the commanding heights of the research economy. On the main panels, pre-92 universities have 46 full members, post-92 institutions have one – Kingston on Panel D. International universities have 15, which shows where competition in Lisa Lucas’s research game is focussed. On the sub-panels the figures are 636 to 87, with assessor members at 112 and 24. This affects grading. I make no accusation of crony capitalism, but there may be an unconscious bias of common cultural identity, as in the Eurovision Song Contest, where votes go to ‘people like us’, so the same old same old may be rewarded ahead of new approaches and findings challenging the established corpus of work done by members. That in turn affects funding. A parliamentary reply on 17 November listed overall government research funding (much of it QR funding from REF) to the 13 universities in the West Midlands. Between 2015 and 2019, Birmingham and Warwick (33 members) got an increase of 21% to £256m, mainly attributable to Warwick gaining an immediate £16 after the 2014 REF and a similar amount over the period; Aston and Keele (8 members) had no increase on £30m – Aston gained £1m, Keele had a matching reduction; Coventry gained £3m to £9m after a good REF. The other 8 institutions had £12 m among them. So two universities, dominating regional representation, got 83% of the funds distributed in 2018/9.

Amanda Solloway, Minister for HE in England, at a recent HEPI webinar, committed to reviewing the nature of excellence in research, acknowledged the need for diversity on interpretations and a need to link to ‘levelling up’. There may be a lesson from the Covid pandemic, where approaches by elite western countries failed; under-regarded countries did better. In 2019 the Johns Hopkins Global Health Security Index ranking capacity to deal with outbreaks of infectious disease ranked the USA first and the UK second; New Zealand came in at 35th and South Korea at 9th. The article in the Guardian from which I took those figures (Laura Spinney on 30 December) quotes Sarah Dalglies in the Lancet – ‘The pandemic has given the lie to the notion that expertise is concentrated in, or at least best channelled by, legacy powers and historically rich states’. Maybe that applies to research, too. REF panels, and Amanda Solloway, please note.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

For answers to Ian’s SRHE News Quiz 2020, they are now online here.


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Visualizing the COVID-19 pandemic response in Canadian higher education: An extended photo essay

by Amy Scott Metcalfe

This blog is a short summary of the author’s paper for a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. This issue is currently free to access and 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 spoke about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar held on 27 January 2021. The paper presented the author’s account of the COVID-19 pandemic from a Canadian perspective, utilising an extended photo essay method and narrative response to document changes seen in the local university environment during the months of April through September 2020. Emerging literature and survey results concerning the Canadian academic condition during the pandemic are discussed in the article alongside research diary entries and policy excerpts. The images included here in this blog post are additional views from the extended photo essay, and were not reproduced in the author’s piece for the Special Issue.

Attempting to make sense of the 2020 pandemic can be understood, meta-cognitively speaking, as academia’s quintessential response to the unknown, coupled with a sector-wide existential crisis. For Studies in Higher Education’s special issue on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives, personally and professionally, I took a conscious approach toward self-expression and ‘research creation’ as a way to channel my mind/body reactions into something productive during this particularly stressful time. In selecting a photo essay format, augmented by ethnographic data collection and my research diary, my contribution to the special issue on “The impact of a pandemic – a global perspective” focuses on the changes the pandemic has brought to my work-life, my institution, and the Canadian university sector as a whole.

The impact of the pandemic on Canada’s higher education sector is yet to be extensively measured, but early indicators of the largely negative effects for students and faculty are coming to light (Firang, 2020; CAUT, 2020a). Fiscally, the mainly public Canadian higher education sector may encounter a cycle of retrenchment, as provincial governments face pandemic-related deficits and as previously anticipated tuition revenues might not be forthcoming (CAUT, 2020b). The negative effects of the pandemic on individual Canadian academics may endure for some time, potentially increasing inequality within a sector already beleaguered by gender disparities and racialization (Johnson and Howsam, 2020; Oleschuk, 2020).

In the article, I presented three consecutive photo essays that describe the conditions within the campus environment at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver between April and September 2020. Sequenced according to our local seasons (spring, summer, fall) and our institutional academic calendar (Winter 2, Summer, Winter 1), the images simultaneously portray moments in time/place and my somatic experiences. Each photo essay contains ten images, although due to space constraints just three per essay were reproduced in the article (nine overall). The complete photographic essays are available online (http://www.amyscottmetcalfe.com/). Within each section I offered temporal contextualisation in the form of narrative description, contemporaneous policy texts, dated excerpts from my research diary, and recently released preliminary findings from institutional and national surveys of faculty with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on academic life and work in Canada. The intent was to create a multimodal diary that collates my experiences as a Canadian academic during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

In this blog post I share three photos that were not reproduced in the article, but which are included in the online photo essays. These images are from the essay titled “Prepping,” which documented some of the visible changes to the campus that occurred over the summer months of 2020, as various campus units prepared for an uncertain fall semester. The larger photo essay includes images of signage and visual cues like floor stickers that were installed that summer to direct our movements throughout the campus to promote physical distancing. With some international and domestic students residing on campus, essential services such as food outlets were open, albeit in a limited fashion. To direct a one-way flow through these open buildings, some doors were locked, with “Do Not Enter” signs affixed to the exterior (Figure 1), to direct students and staff to other entrances. The cumulative effect of these large signs prohibiting entry is that of a campus environment that is both provisional and conditional—not the expected openness or enduring continuity we typically find in our public academic institutions.

Figure 1. Do Not Enter. Photo: Author.

The centre of student life on many North American campuses is the student services building, where young people gather for recreation, entertainment, mealtimes, and student club meetings. At my employing institution, the UBC Life building is a newly renovated space for student services, including International Student Advising and UBC’s Go Global program for study abroad opportunities. At present, the UBC Life building is partially open to provide limited food services and restricted use of a weight room and gym. From the exterior, the building exclaims “UBC Life” in large lettering (Figure 2), in sharp contrast to the largely vacant interior.

Figure 2. UBC Life. Photo: Author.

Figure 3. The Best Thing in Life is Life. Photo: Author.

Walking amongst the unused tables and chairs within the UBC Life building, adjacent to the dark windows of closed advising offices, a mural reminds us that “the best thing in life is life” (Figure 3). In the shadowy background, behind the overturned chairs, we can see the marquee of the now-closed student movie theatre still announcing film showings from March 2020, including a Vancouver International Film Festival viewing of “The World is Bright” (March 9, 6PM), a documentary that describes the grief of an elderly Chinese couple who travel to Canada to try to understand the death of their son, an immigrant who died on foreign soil. The showing of this film at UBC in March 2020 would soon be followed by the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic. Taken together, we might read the phrases from this institutional still life as a prefiguration of the hope and despair brought by COVID-19 in the 2020-2021 academic year. Even now, in early 2021 with vaccine delivery underway, Canadian universities are in a holding pattern, having put in place the mechanisms by which we might operate in suspended animation online into the (un)foreseeable future.

Dr Amy Scott Metcalfe is a Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her research focuses on higher education in Canada and the North American region, including (post)critical approaches to internationalisation, academic labour and mobility, and critical policy studies in education. Dr Metcalfe has a particular interest in visual research methods in education, with an emphasis on photographic methodologies, art historical approaches, and visual analysis.

Works Cited

Firang, D (2020) ‘The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on International Students in Canada’ International Social Work, 1-5 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020872820940030

CAUT  (2020a) Post-Secondary Staff Concerned about Remote Teaching, Research, Health and Safety and Jobs  Ottawa: Canadian Association of University Teachers. 20 August 2020 https://www.caut.ca/latest/2020/08/post-secondary-staff-concerned-about-remote-teaching-research-health-and-safety-and.

CAUT (2020b) Post-Secondary Educators Issue Urgent Call for Support to Offset Impacts of COVID-19 Ottawa: Canadian Association of University Teachers 1 May 2020 https://www.caut.ca/latest/2020/05/post-secondary-educators-issue-urgent-call-support-offset-impacts-covid-19.

Johnson, GF and R Howsam (2020) ‘Whiteness, Power and the Politics of Demographics in the Governance of the Canadian Academy’ Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique, 1–19 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/canadian-journal-of-political-science-revue-canadienne-de-science-politique/article/whiteness-power-and-the-politics-of-demographics-in-the-governance-of-the-canadian-academy/E203CC4FD2A80D1B9E5E4B21D2989600

Oleschuk, M (2020) ‘Gender Equity Considerations for Tenure and Promotion During COVID-19’ Canadian Review of Sociology 57 (3): 502–515. 


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The post-coronial future of higher education: Utopian hopes and dystopian fears at Cambridge University

by Simone Eringfeld

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.

You’re asking about my perfect post-Covid dystopian University? Imagine everyone’s got really nice VR headsets and virtual reality has exponentially gotten better and better. We can now host the entire experience online, so you wake up in the morning, you put your headset on and then you ‘go to’ university, you go to lectures … You sort of simulate what life is. I think that’s the worst-case scenario. I think if it was like how it is now but online – because you could just do it cheaply online – the University of Cambridge would be like a network, or a file. It wouldn’t even be a place anymore. That seems hellish to me. I think that’s my perfect dystopia.

– Peter, Cambridge undergraduate student

If I asked you to describe your ‘perfect dystopia’ of a post-pandemic university, what kind of scenario would emerge? And which images arise when you try to picture the opposite, an ideal utopian outcome? When I interviewed students and academics at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education about hopes and fears for the future of HE, responses included scenes that could inspire even the gloomiest science fiction scripts. It is clear that Covid-19 has raised critical questions addressing the existential core of HE institutions and their futures. By imagining best and worst-case scenarios, this time of crisis becomes an opportunity to pause and reflect: what kind of university do we ultimately want, and what is it we absolutely don’t want?

This research project focuses on the following thought experiment: how can we reimagine the post-coronial university? I introduce the term ‘post-coronial’ here as

“… a temporally evocative notion indicating both the university after Covid-19 and its evolvement as a consequence of Covid-19 in the here and now, during the pandemic. In addition, the term speculatively indicates the emergence of a new school of thought that might result from the impact of Covid-19 on societies and educational systems; that is, the possibility of future ‘post-coronial theory’ or ‘post-coronial education’ in a more conceptual and less time-bound sense” (Eringfeld, 2021).

Prior to conducting private interviews with students and faculty members, I started the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats’, where I invited members of the Cambridge community – from undergraduates to senior professors – to share their own experiences of education in the time of Covid-19 and to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the University. This podcast became an important component of my research methodology, with interviewees listening in advance to selected fragments of podcast conversations in order to sonically elicit their own imagination. I wrote about my podcasting methodology in another blog post here.

The most prominent fear that emerged from the research interviews is that of a complete and indefinite shift to online education. Such a dystopian university would become a ‘placeless’ institution, with the university now being ‘located’ inside desktop files and Zoom rooms. Such a university would be a disembodied institution, where screens and virtual reality replace the ‘real world’. Participants described a dystopia in which education would no longer be a social experience, where communal learning would be lost and where loneliness and isolation would exponentially be on the rise. A third theme that resurfaced across dystopian accounts given by students and faculty members is the fear that education would become ‘dehumanised’, with increased marketisation and bureaucratisation leading to a drastic reduction of precisely that which gives meaning to educational practices for many: interpersonal, human contact.

Yet when asked about their utopian visions for the future, not a single participant suggested a full return to pre-pandemic HE. Instead, many described a utopian post-coronial university with at least some elements of online education as part of the new normal. As one academic reflects:

I do want to go back to some of the college dinners and conversations, the late-night sessions and seminars, the music … But I would also want some of my supervisions to be able to happen online and I would want to be able to integrate what I’ve benefited from through this period of lockdown and isolation to become part of my ‘new normal’, because I can see there are huge benefits for me and I think for the students as well.

Advantages of online education that participants reported include a sense of enhanced freedom and agency, less performance pressure, more quality time with family, improved ability to focus on studying due to reduced FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) and more space for creativity and artistic expression. Others noted the potential for online education to expand access to a larger audience by reducing the costs of HE, offering more open access resources, designing more MOOCs and including other multi-media formats of education such as video recordings, audio podcasts and improved virtual learning environments. Such flexibility would allow university experiences to be tailored to the varying needs of students and staff. One graduate student pointed out that the availability of distance learning options would enable students based in different countries, or in different life phases, to still attend Cambridge.

At the same time, developing blended learning approaches that combine in-person with virtual education will bring about new challenges. One academic points to dystopian dangers connected to large-scale massification, the loss of personalized interaction and strengthened ‘echo chambers’ when students remain at home. Another student shared his fear that extreme commodification of education could turn even the most casual everyday aspects of student life into ‘sellable bite-sized experiences’, like student society meetings or visits to the college buttery. Many of these hopes and fears do not exclusively exist in the imagination; instead, they build on pre-existing issues in HE such as marketisation, individualisation and exclusivity. While some of the dystopian scenarios may seem far removed from reality, they connect to HE tendencies already visible today.

What emerges from these interviews is in no way a singularly defined vision for the future, but rather a widely shared view that neither a fully online university nor a complete return to pre-pandemic HE is desirable. For “while a fully online format is seen as dystopian due to the loss of education as an embodied and communal experience connected to the ‘real world’, moving some teaching activities online may increase flexibility and improve access to HE for an expanded community in ways that a purely face-to-face university would not be able to” (Eringfeld, 2021). Universities will need to embrace flexibility and adaptability by fostering a blended approach to education that safely involves both online and face-to-face education. Importantly, this blended post-coronial university will need to think creatively about new ways to construct and maintain a sense of belonging for both students and staff, so as to ensure that HE remains a communal, humanized and embodied experience.

This blog is based on my article for Studies in Higher Education:

Eringfeld, S. (2021): Higher education and its post-coronial future: Utopian hopes and dystopian fears at Cambridge University during Covid-19. Studies in Higher Education, 46:1, 146-157, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1859681Simone Eringfeld is a recent Education MPhil graduate from the University of Cambridge. She is the co-Chair of the Cambridge Peace and Education Research Group (CPERG) and hosts the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats, which explores possible futures of post-Covid HE. She tweets: @SimoneEringfeld


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A lockdown journal from Catalonia

by Alicia Betts

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.

Uncertainty has become the new normal, affecting our family lives and routines, our professional goals and activities and our relationship with local, regional and national governments. We have seen, in just a few months, how our freedom to move and associate has been challenged and restricted, or even forbidden. In Spain we lived a severe version of lockdown for over a month and a half. I wrote down my personal journey from the beginnings of the pandemic to September 2020 noting how I lived it, as an individual, a mother, a worker and a citizen.

We all expected some sort of lockdown by early March, but nobody really understood how harsh or how long it would actually be. On a Thursday we were told schools would not open the next day, and by Monday the whole country was locked in their houses. We are a family of four, and have two children ages 8 and 4, both enrolled in school. We adults work in the university sector full-time and our daily normal life involved quite a lot of commuting for all four of us. We live in a flat with a small balcony, very close to nature, parks and playgrounds, so we have never missed having our own little piece of outdoors.

I admit that total lockdown was a shock. I could not quite believe that we would not be allowed outside our flat and even less that children would not be permitted outdoors, not even in the fields and forest behind our house, or for some daily outdoor exercise. Meanwhile dog owners could walk their dogs. I think all of us without dogs hated them and/or envied them. There were few voices calling out for children’s rights and well-being under lockdown. The police patrolled the neighbourhoods. We had to organize two working schedules all while home-schooling two children (one of them very physically active). The beginning was stressful to say the least.

I had started a new position at the Universitat de Girona, just six weeks before lockdown. I worried that it would affect my productivity, my integration into this institution where human relations are very valued and important, and what would happen to my contract once the economic crisis that is bound to follow kicked in.

The university sent everybody home for 15 days asking for collaboration, flexibility and understanding in the complex situation. As a member of staff, I felt I was duly informed at all moments and that I was a part of a community that was undergoing a major challenge and managing all right with appropriate solutions and good timing. I think that being a medium-small institution (about 15000 students) helped in creating this sense of community while facing the challenge together. There were frequent emails from the Rector and from the leadership on the next steps and what was to be done and taken into account. The leadership shared their crisis strategy with the staff and students which included different phases and scenarios.

It was, however, very difficult to concentrate and get work done in the first few weeks, with all the uncertainties, the terrible daily news, having the children home and indoors all day. I struggled a lot, feeling very unproductive (in my new position) and guilty for not being able to be more professional and get all the work done at the usual rhythm, and also guilty for not meeting the demands of the children, who were also suffering from the situation and missed their school and friends. 

At the end of March several organizations like the European Association for International Education (EAIE) started to have open webinars on higher education hot topics. These sessions helped to generate a sense of community, a space to learn and share with peers around the globe, and a connection to the outside world. Being used to travel often and work with international peers, I enjoyed them very much. These webinars and meetings became something to look forward to every week and were intellectually and professionally refreshing.

By April, lockdown in a flat was beginning to have some serious physical consequences. Our bodies hurt, loss of muscles and strength, difficulty sleeping, cravings, anxiety … We had been locked in a three bedroom flat for a month and a half by the end of April. Only one of us adults went out once every ten days for grocery shopping.

On the upside, our lockdown work routine was now the new normal. I managed to get back into productive mode and worked towards my previously set objectives. Projects picked up and I felt that work life was back to a “nearly-normal” rhythm despite having all meetings and work done from home. The number of virtual open events multiplied in such a way that it was impossible to follow them and the sense of community that I felt the previous month slowly faded with the rising number of online activities.

There was a lot of discussion on what easing the lockdown meant for the university and what measures should be taken. Who should be allowed back first to their offices , classrooms or labs? In what conditions? How to ensure safety at the workplace and what material should be handed out?

In May, children were finally allowed outdoors for exercise for an hour a day close to the family home and, a few weeks later, adults were permitted out for exercise and sport in the municipality. The first day we went outdoors with the children they touched the ground, the earth, the grass and marvelled at the smell of nature, we had missed it so much! We had all lost physical strength, endurance and agility (despite all our efforts to keep us active indoors). It was quite shocking and painful to see how much lockdown had affected the children physically.

Work really picked up this month and all the events we had planned had to be transformed into virtual events. There were tons of meetings, emails and webinars organized. I began to feel there were two worlds: the hectic online screen world and the slow-paced world outside my computer. I was definitely missing a morning coffee break with colleagues.

Student mobility for the next academic year was still in debate. Should we let our students go abroad? In what conditions? Should they sign a document stating that it is under their responsibility and that they have to abide to the host institution’s guidelines? What can we offer incoming students? How many can we host if classrooms will have smaller numbers of students? What are other institutions deciding? Can we agree on a decision as a university system (all the universities in Catalonia)? All these questions on the next academic year had little to no answer and the leadership struggled with taking a clear decision.

In June we gradually expanded our social life, with facemasks and social distancing, but letting the children play freely outdoors. And by July administrative staff were required to go back to the office one or two times per week. Meetings had to be via videoconferences. But since cafes were open, staff often met outdoors for a coffee instead (just as an example of the incoherencies brought by this “new normal”).

The first days of this “new normal” in the office surprised me because I worked so much more and so much better from home. No time lost in traffic, no time lost getting to meetings in other parts of the campus … I am not one who considers speaking to colleagues as “lost time” but it is time away from the computer, and that did not happen from home. But it felt good to be physically at the university and have a sense of belonging to a community and a space beyond the computer screen. I was also finally getting an understanding of the work dynamics, the who is who inside the institution.

Despite all the enormous amounts of change and uncertainties, humans adapt and find ways to create new routines, new dynamics. Surprisingly, once our basic needs are met and we feel relatively safe, we also forget what life used to be like. To me the new normal looks like an ever changing palette of adaptations and regulations, not a stable linear path towards a COVID-19 free world. I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, and I do not believe we will simply “pick up where we left off”.

In this context, universities have both a huge opportunity and a challenge. Opportunity because their research and teaching missions require them to be up-to-date in contributing to unravelling how best to proceed, providing governments and policymakers with evidence and analysis, and by finding medical and scientific solutions to the public healthcare crisis we are facing. In addition, it is also an ideal setting for transformative change, in some areas, much needed. It is also a challenge because most universities are not online institutions, but have rather based their organizational model on face-to-face interactions. We all know that coffee machine conversations are very important, often more than formal meetings. Videoconferences hinder spontaneity, silences in conversations and the innovation that stems from these type of informal interactions. Trading face-to-face teaching for teaching via a computer is not an easy process, for anyone involved.

Leadership at the Universitat de Girona has been bold, brave and positive, but also human and considerate. The crisis is affecting each and every one in a diverse way at different moments. Higher education institutions need to find the right balance for their own resilience and to continue being relevant in today’s very rapidly changing context.

Alicia Betts is responsible for International Strategic Projects at the Universitat de Girona since February 2020. Before she worked for the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) and the Catalan Association of Public Universities as Head of Projects for over ten years. Her professional and research interests lie in internationalisation of higher education, community engagement and higher education and sustainable development. She is also a member of the EAIE steering group Cooperation for Development. Check her latest publication “A lockdown journal from Catalonia” here.


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Redesigning global hybrid education now that everything’s changed

by Hamish Coates, Xie Zheping and Xi Hong

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.

In July 2020, my nine-year-old daughter picked my 1968 edition of Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles from the shelf and asked me: “Why did the girl catch a plane to school?”. I paused, wondering if this was fantasy, folly, fantastic, foresight, fortune, futuristic or just funny. “So she could get a higher education”, my daughter answered, signalling how comfortable today’s children of faculty have grown up feeling about international university study.

In 1968, the idea that millions of young middle-income people mainly from Asia would swirl around the globe for undergraduate study, financially turbocharging research at major universities, was fanciful. A one-hour trunk call might cost more than a 2019 trans-Pacific plane ticket; the 747, the monumental whale which lifted globalisation, was fresh from the hangar; only very high elites in largely developing Asian economies were thinking about university, and such study was barely a prerequisite for a fantastic and fulsome or even a professional life.

My ideas wandered before my daughter pitched the punchline, but one gnawing anxiety pulsed stubbornly in my imagination. In this year of pandemic-induced accelerated global transformation, with 747s scuttled, billions carved from university budgets, and 14-day hotel quarantine dwarfing the pain of even 14-hour flights, what, I thought, would higher education be like in 2030 for my daughter’s generation? The nomenclature of qualifications and credentials proliferates but scares about ‘over-education’ and diminishing returns from degrees have, paradoxically, led to more people spending more time in more study. Promulgating the promise of technology has seen the campus flourish into sacred learning places. Higher education will continue to grow in value. I have learned that forecasting the future is fraught with failure, but also that failing to plan means planning to fail.

Such observation helped to frame analysis of how engaging with transformed fundamentals is necessary to design global hybrid higher education. The point of our recent Studies in Higher Education paper, and my broader book on Higher Education Design, was not to dramatize contentious political contingencies, polish pedagogical pedantries, earmark technological solutions, or cast policy prescriptions. The point, rather, has been to clarify multidimensional tectonic rumbles, make clear often hidden but non-ignorable innovation underway, and frame constructive narratives and perspectives for considering the shape of things to come. Given that higher education does change, slowly, then suddenly, let’s get ready and be prepared.

Our Studies in Higher Education essay starts by charting recent experiences of me and co-authors. Like many in higher education, our lives have been filled with what felt like ‘free flowing globalism’, with myriad experiences pounding rhythms of seemingly unstoppable growth. Then, swiftly, in January 2020, the world got acutely personal and unusual.

This gave time and remit to question what shocks or changes have been evident, how have these registered, and what implications they carry. Our analysis is framed in terms of system-level shifts, education reconfigurations, research developments, and the movement of people.

Notable system shifts included the re-assertion of government power, notable in terms of border closures, health priorities, and emboldened regulatory structures. Myriad shock vectors arising from the pandemic also appear to have grounded the ‘isomorphic ivy striving’ fixations of plushily renumerated executives, directing their attention to more local communities and concerns. “Teach local students like your job depends on it”, one top-university president told his professors, sharply diverting from the entrenched ‘world-class university’ rhetoric of publishing and patenting to pump up the rankings. Such fundamental re-orientation around local communities generates novel futures for education and engagement, and carries broader implications for sectoral and institutional structure. At the other end of the geographic spectrum, the pandemic shock spurred reconfiguration of important cross-border engagements. Such reconfiguration of cross-border education, student mobility, faculty work, and research fundamentals will leave a lasting impact on higher education. For instance, there will be greater need for global coordination around education regulation and quality assurance, particularly education which is broadcast online.

The global shift to ‘emergency online learning’ caused by the shuttering of campuses is likely to be one of the biggest ever changes to education. In 2020 there were estimates that more than 90 per cent of the world’s learners, more than 1.5 billion people, were confined to their homes. As I articulate in Higher Education Design, online learning emerged from these emergency conditions as a plinth undergirding future higher education. Tellingly, however, online learning was relegated as a servant of in-person provision, not as the triumphant master, as long expounded by techno-zealots. The maturation of hybrid forms of education was made possible by the consolidation of very sophisticated education service firms. Such partnerships carry step-change implications for future higher education. Clearly, these education-related changes and reconfigurations merely scratch the surface. While ‘change rhetoric’ runs rampant in higher education commentary and scholarship, realistically education plays out across decades through large systems with long pipelines. It is too soon to calculate the effects of contemporary disruptions on students who have been preparing their whole lives for dreamlike university futures. While the shape of the post-pandemic recovery remains ‘a question mark’, the magnitude of disruption has already reconfigured education in ways which will ricochet for years to come.

Personal experiences, media stories and discussions with colleagues all conveyed major shifts in academic research. Trapped at home, all academics and consultants found more time to write, surely ensuring that, through essays like ours, 2020 will be one of the most highly documented yet. Such inquiry has raised fresh questions about the overall direction of our field. The year 2020 has required higher education research to deliver in robust and relevant ways. We became convinced, as outlined below, of the need for the field to engage with fundamental forms of higher education design. Beyond higher education studies, it was hard not to project that abrupt changes to academic research will reap enduring consequences. Governments stepped in to subsidise fields not independently viable. Through writing, investigative and editorial work we noted swift changes with publishing. Fuelled by the vaccine quest, medical researchers cemented decades of debate into collaborative ways for expediting and strengthening peer review, which will carry universal implications. The swing towards open-access publications was accentuated, potentially to help faculty working from home, certainly affirming growing interest in open science and, related to this, establishing momentum towards citations and other impact-related metrics. New global realisation emerged of the role of research in Asia, not just in supporting more established systems, but in pioneering frontiers and innovations.

Higher education is about people, and changes regarding people have already had the most profound impact and implications. Across Asia, travel which used to take six hours and six hundred dollars, in 2020 took six weeks and six thousand dollars, considering costs for visas, health certificates, flights and quarantine. It has been impossible to ignore the impact of the pandemic on students, on faculty, and on broader global flows. It does not take too much acumen or courage to foresee that transnational education will look very different over the next 25 years. The pandemic has flattened ‘international education’ and fuelled evolution of the new ‘global era’. As our essay conveys, the conditions and arrangements built up since the mid-1990s to sustain ‘international higher education’ have cracked, sometimes in irreparable ways. The ‘emergency’ arrangements patched in to sustain education across the first half of 2020 cranked important ratchets which will prove hard or unpleasant to reverse. Emergent changes reveal the need for new transnational perspectives, partnerships, practices.

As our essay articulates, we started 2020 researching global higher education futures, sustained academics through pandemic-induced turbulence, then realised that contemporary changes had reconfigured fundamentals. A volatile, exciting and thought-provoking time. Far from muting or stalling the initial research, we realised that our experiences in 2020 has presaged the shape of things to come. A constructive way to engage, we conclude, is to engage in fresh forms of higher education design. Higher education has never been more important.

Hamish COATES, XIE Zheping and XI Hong are at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education.

Hamish COATES is a Tenured Professor, Director of the Higher Education Research Division, and Deputy Director of the Tsinghua University Global Research Centre for the Assessment of College and Student Development. He was Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, Founding Director of Higher Education Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and Program Director at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Leadership and Management. He concentrates on improving the quality and productivity of higher education. hamishcoates@outlook.com

With a PhD in political science, Dr XIE Zheping is an Associate Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, as well as the Deputy Director of Policy Research Office at Tsinghua University. She also serves as an academic board member of the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO. Before joining Tsinghua she worked at Renmin University of China, and was a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published several papers and books on education and international cooperation. Her current research focuses on higher education and global governance.

Xi HONG is a PhD student at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education. Xi is the recipient of the ‘Future Scholar Scholarship of Tsinghua University’. She specialises in the field of higher education, focusing in particular on student development, higher education policy, higher education assessment, and minorities.


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Support for doctoral candidates during the pandemic at the University of Melbourne

by Ai Tam Le

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.

There is little doubt that doing a PhD can be hard; doing a PhD during a pandemic certainly makes it harder. But the diversity of PhD projects, the resources required to undertake them, and the differences in our situations mean that each PhD candidate has faced a rather different set of challenges and experienced varying degrees of disruption due to the pandemic. In my university, the University of Melbourne (henceforth the university), for some students, the pandemic has made little impact on their progress; for others, however, the lack of access to lab facilities or fieldwork means that their project came to a halt.

In a recent paper for a Special Issue of the Studies in Higher Education, I took a closer look at the support provided to doctoral candidates at the university and discussed some of the arising issues. In this blog, I summarise the situation and highlight two major issues with the university’s approach to supporting doctoral students.

University’s support and graduate researchers’ Open Letter

When the pandemic was escalating in March 2020, alongside advising students to work from home, the university gradually introduced different support measures in terms of finance (emergency funds), psychological well-being (counselling services) and candidature (extension of candidature and stipend). Yet the following months saw a rising uneasy sentiment among a group of graduate researchers (masters and doctoral candidates) at the university who then drafted and sent an Open Letter to the university outlining their requests for ‘real’ support. The letter has been signed by more than 640 graduate researchers and academics.

What was requested in the letter? Two major requests were put forward: a special category of leave (a period of non-active enrolment) for reasons related to COVID-19; and a six-month universal extension for all students. Six months was requested because, I suppose, there was an expectation at the beginning of the pandemic that it would take at least six months to be back to ‘normal’. (The reality has proven that this expectation was overly optimistic.) Similarly, the Graduate Student Association at the university at first advocated for three-month universal extensions and later ‘the commitment to six-month extensions as standard or more where needed’.

The university did not respond – and has not, according to my understanding, officially responded –  to the Open Letter; however, their support measures have addressed these concerns to a large extent. Specifically, a new category of leave was created to support students who were not able to continue their research due to the pandemic. Extension of stipend from 3 to 3.5 years was automatically granted to students at a certain stage of their candidature*.  Stipend beyond 3.5 years (up to 26 weeks of extension) can also be requested given that the student can provide sufficient documents to support their case.

The ‘hidden’ issues

It is fair to say that, overall, these measures have accommodated the needs of most students. But there are some ‘hidden’ issues as highlighted below.

First, the university’s ‘business-as-usual’ expectation could create undue pressure for doctoral students. While the university’s commitment to supporting its students to make progress was well-intentioned, the expectation of ‘business-as-usual’ in an unusual time could be misinterpreted as a pressure to work, which was not possible for some students. Failing this expectation can be seen as a sign of weakness by the students, hence creating further stress.

Second, the application process for leave or extension was deemed as bureaucratic by some students. In the application, a student must demonstrate the ‘exceptional circumstance’ under which their research has been disrupted. Some students argued that the existence of the pandemic itself constituted an ‘exceptional circumstance’ that would qualify all students for leave or universal extension. The requirement to demonstrate ‘exceptional circumstance’ was deemed as just another layer of documentation and reporting. Moreover, some changes and disruptions can be documented and quantified such as days of lacking access to lab or fieldwork; other disruptions are not quantifiable such as lack of appropriate workspace or psychological stress due to isolation and the pandemic threat. For example, it would be challenging to quantify and document the loss of productivity due to sitting on a dining chair instead of an ergonomic chair, or due to distractions caused by homeschooling kids. There could be students falling through the cracks by not being able to accumulate ‘sufficient’ documents to support their case for leave or extension.

Looking back, these issues were hidden – acquired by inside knowledge and detail – and seemed trivial compared to the support provided; they can easily be forgotten as time goes by. With the advantage of hindsight, it is now easier to make sense of the contestation between the university’s support and the students’ demands. On the one hand, constrained by financial resources, mostly due to the loss of revenues from international students, the university had to strike a balance between, among other things, organisational survival and doctoral students’ needs. The mechanisms set up – bureaucratic as they could be – were necessary for allocating limited resources for those deemed most in need. On the other hand, research students did not know what situation they were getting into and how or when they were getting out of it, so that any barrier to getting support – regardless of how small it was – added to the existing chaos and would seem significant to the students.

Concluding thoughts

Even though the situation has improved in Australia and some parts of the world, the pandemic is not over yet. No one can confidently say when things are going back to ‘normal’ and how that ‘normal’ would look like. As many PhD candidates are still unable to go back to campus and go about conducting their daily business, the question of how effective these supports are in the long-term remains open.

Moreover, given that research students make a significant contribution to research and development in Australia (ABS 2020), there is a need for further monitoring and reporting on how research students have been affected by the pandemic. This would provide a nuanced understanding of the impact of the pandemic on research workforce capacity in Australia.

*In a recent announcement, the extension has reverted to standard procedures through which students must have approval from their supervisory committee instead of being granted automatically.

Ai Tam Le is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Centre for the Study in Higher Education and Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne, Australia). Her PhD project explores aspiring academics’ understanding of the academic profession in Australia. She is a contributor to the Early Career Researchers in Higher Education Blog (echer.org). She tweets @aitamlp.


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Leading a university out of the pandemic

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).