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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.