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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


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Some reflections on learning during lockdown…

by Ian McNay

This is a listing of thoughts that came over 3 months of isolation when learning was in a different context.

  •  Policy based on science becomes policy blamed on science in the hands of politicians, who rarely, if ever, admit being at fault, which they see as weakness.
  • Researchers therefore need to be very sure of what they publish or advice they give, because the nuances of conditionality of research findings do not transfer easily to a political mindset. Do not rush to publish when data are still emerging in a fluid situation. Rigorous peer review becomes even more important, but seems to have been neglected by The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine over hydroxychloroquine. The reputation of the Imperial group and their influential model was also called in to question when examined by the excellent Radio 4 programme, More or Less, and later in Private Eye (19 June) which discovered that their forecast about the rate at which infections doubled – 5 days – neglected data from Italy and the early days of the UK experience – which gives nearer to 3 days – and therefore led to a delay in lockdown. Maybe not a 4* rating for impact, after all. The cherry picking by ministers and the pressures to edit findings from those in a draft (I have experienced both) may have been a learning experience for some.
  • The definition of ‘world leading’ adopted by government in reviewing its own policy in operation over Covid-19 must use criteria even lower than those in REF derided by Johnston (Ron, that is – ex-VC of Essex, then professor emeritus at Bristol)
  • Presentism was shown to be less essential than Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks. I won’t comment much on the teaching experience since most of mine has been at a distance for some years. Some research approaches – interviews, focus groups – needed to be adapted by my students, whose field work was disrupted. Anthropological immersion in a community for study purposes was challenging – but there is a lot of material being gathered virtually and more to follow when retrospective work is done. Anthropologists and ethnologists may have a field day examining how societies and communities changed – norms, habits, rituals, relationships, communications – and how quickly they responded to crisis: better locally than when driven from the centre. Outside the academic, meetings were shorter with more respect for others in terms of interruptions. Some international conferences had higher attendances than at times in the past when the time and cost of travel was a deterrent. This has been true of SRHE, where some events offered by Networks have had over 100 participants, when the room they were held in BC (Before Covid) could hold a maximum of 50. A higher proportion were from overseas. Currently, therefore, some people, less advantaged because of geography or funding, may get access they could not previously afford. Fees for non-members have also been suspended, though this has led to a drop in the number of members joining or renewing. Please do pay membership fees – they give value for money.
  • The opposite is true for some students where they do not have home technology, and so inequality of opportunity has increased. Universities need to reflect on this and recall that in the first years of the Open University students were provided with not only home experiment kits (including a rotor arm which one postal worker left outside the door of a 7th floor flat in Toxteth: I had to argue hard with the administration to stop the student being charged), but with home computers, so all had access.
  • Working from home had its challenges. As someone who has always gone to work to work, with the journey allowing a role transition from place to place, entering the dining room to work at the table does not have the same liminal impact. The morning walk to the newsagent, which allowed thoughts to organise themselves and next paragraphs and passages to be planned, has been suspended. Papers are now delivered. Lockdown has had a differential impact by gender. Submission rates of journal articles have gone down for women, up for men, with a knock on consequence for REF submissions.
  • The ‘unknown knowns’ of inequality, prejudice and discrimination are now out in the open and, if continued are deliberate and systemic, done knowingly, not some deterministically ‘systemic’ feature about which we can do nothing. The claim that Covid-19 hit high and low alike was based around two people – the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister – neither of whom died. The figures I quoted on deaths of clinical staff last time became even more alarming, with 94% of doctors killed by Covid-19 reported as being from BAME backgrounds. The interconnection of class and race in the distribution of infection and deaths shows that responsibility rests with policies on disadvantage of the poor increasing exposure. We should also have absorbed another ‘known’, that value is not reflected in wage/salary levels, but should be. Humanity and decency should mean that policy seeks to redress inequality, and universities have roles to play in this and need to commit to performing them, beyond looking at their own patterns of discrimination. Especially, perhaps, those running police training courses, who need to review them as economists needed to review their courses after the 2008 crash (some even did so) and those leading MBA programmes after the report from CIPD that only 8 per cent of managers thought about the relevance of values. The history curriculum at all levels needs examining for balance. One of my newspapers surveyed decolonisation and found only 20% of universities had done anything and even fewer on a whole university basis. The ubiquitous media academic de nos jours, David Olusonge, who as I write, as well as appearing on the news, has just started a BBC4 programme on Black British History to sit alongside one on BBC2 about a house in Guinea Street , Bristol, built by a likely slave trader, could be the person to lead on it.
  • Of course universities are not racist; senior managers have issued statements saying so, not after the glaring picture of the statistics but by joining the Black Lives Matter bandwagon of corporate guilt, denial and claimed commitment following recent police killings and decades of discrimination. The heads of Oxford colleges did it most publicly through a high profile letter in The Guardian; others were less limelight-seeking. I did not see any comment from David Lammy, but the next day the Guardian had a report of racist language and harassment in election hustings at an Oxford college … for a cake representative (I kid you not; this is Oxford, remember). More seriously, the day after that came a report that BAME student societies had withdrawn involvement in Oxford’s outreach programme because of the perceived lack of support following student entry. Lessons for us all there. Only three percent of Rhodes scholarships go to those from Africa. The governors of Oriel College have now decided to remove the statue of Rhodes: sometimes people power can achieve things mainstream processes of deliberation do not.
  • Lessons, too, on leadership, where what has emerged during the crisis echoes work by myself and others. What people want is: clarity of policy, so there is certainty about expectations; consistency and continuity rather than constant change, which makes us feel like experimental guinea pigs where different things are tested on us (REF 2021 has 12 major changes); and confidence in leaders, which the first two will help promote, but which also needs a sense of common identity, where we are visibly and evidentially ‘all in it together’. There is a Leadership Foundation in HE report saying exactly that https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/828871 . (Thanks to Rob C for digging that out) The involvement of those at devolved level with expertise is also essential; driving from the centre, with autocratic control, is neither efficient nor effective, and, in some cases not economic. True at university institutional level, too.
  • We have learned that the crisis, like others, offers opportunities. HEPI had a report outlining possibilities for enhancing access; for many, the exposure to distance learning has stimulated broader thinking about curriculum process, and there will be strategic thinking about the portfolio of provision, though English government decisions on extra undergraduate numbers give them to elite universities whatever their TEF grade and ignores many judged excellent by TEF judgements. Yet the elite universities are dropping down international league tables because of, say the compilers (according to a report in…The Guardian 10 June) ‘poor teaching and declining research impact’. Of the 84 in the rankings (very few were modern universities, though Greenwich made it) 66 had a drop in SSRs, 59 a drop in research citations, and 51 a drop in international student numbers, who, for them, will now be replaced by extra domestic students.
  • Finally, we have learned that some academics are market sensitive and see a promotional opportunity when it comes. For those on television, bookshelves became advertising hoardings, with their latest output showing, cover to the front, not spine, just over their shoulder and very legible. In one case, a blown up photograph had been framed and hung on the wall.

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