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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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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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).


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The impact of COVID 19 on private higher education: the Ethiopian experience

by Wondwosen Tamrat

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 will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021. The paper presented the findings of a study that sought to examine the impact of the pandemic on the private higher education (PHE) sector in Ethiopia. It employed a mixed-methods design using a weekly diary of significant events kept between the months of April and August,2020, and two online surveys conducted between the months of April and May, 2020, and at the end of August, 2020, respectively. Among 110 private higher education institutions contacted for the purpose of the study, ninety-seven institutions (89%) responded to the first survey while 77 (70%) institutions gave back their answers during the second survey.

Together with tourism and travel, higher education has been identified as one of the major sectors upended by the COVID-19 pandemic (The Economist 2020). Despite the lack of research on the area, anecdotal evidence suggests that the effect of the pandemic may be more pronounced in the private higher education (PHE) sector whose resource base and capacity are too limited to withstand the impact of a crisis of this magnitude.

Arguably, in many systems, private colleges are over-reliant on student tuition and do not count on direct government support or emergency grants to keep them afloat. The search for external support is also not easy at a time when institutions are losing their selling points due to the pandemic which has indeed presented an unprecedented challenge such as reduced admissions, cash flow problems, inability to pay salaries, and furloughing of staff. 

Initial experiences and reactions

The first confirmed case in Ethiopia, reported on 7 March, was a Japanese advisor employed to provide technical assistance to Ethiopian schools. Things moved quickly after the Ministry of Health reported the case in public media. Ethiopia’s 30 million learners in schools and nearly a million in its 50 public universities and more than 250 private academic institutions were identified as high potential transmission sites. On 16 March, the Prime Minister announced that schools and universities would halt classes for 2 weeks. On 17 March, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education gave further directions on how universities should act during the closure.

In the immediate aftermath of the closure, the Ethiopian government set up a national task force that mobilized the public towards combatting the impacts of the pandemic. Most higher education institutions (HEIs), including the privates, responded to the call by donating money, sanitary items, essential supplies, and even their buildings to be used for quarantine and storage purposes. According to a figure obtained from the Ethiopian TVET and Private Higher Education Institutions’ Association, donations worth more than ETB 30 million (nearly US$ 1 million) were raised by private institutions for the cause. Private medical colleges also enlisted nearly 4000 of their medical students to be deployed by the government to combat the pandemic.

Government also made further interventions in the form of declaration of a state of emergency and providing support to the private sector. Whereas the initial government shutdown had a largely common impact across sectors, the declaration of a state of emergency loomed as potentially disastrous for many private institutions. The limited assistance provided to private enterprises by government went mostly to manufacturing, hotel, horticulture, floriculture, and others labeled most affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, PHE was not on that priority list and as a consequence, the only workable benefits extended to PHEIs were a 4-month employee income tax exemption, the postponement of pension payments for a few months, and regulation that bans landlords from increasing rents and evicting tenants including PHE institutions.

The challenges of shifting online

Shifting to online delivery was difficult in the Ethiopian context for many reasons. Poor internet access, cost, availability of computers and related technology, little previous preparation, and students’ and teachers’ twin problems of limited technical knowhow and negative attitudes towards the use of information and communication technology stood out as the most prevalent problems both for public and private HEIs.

Most institutions used social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Google Classroom in their program delivery, a few struggled to develop their own learning management systems more recently. Despite such efforts, not much is known about the most disadvantaged students who are being left behind. Mechanisms such as creating zero-rated access to specific educational websites, universities, digital libraries and online knowledge hubs, and offering free data bundles to students, that were observed in some African countries have not been practised in Ethiopia.

Impact on income

Ethiopian PHEIs rely entirely on student tuition and fees. An overwhelming majority had the practice of collecting fees on a monthly basis which immediately put many of them in jeopardy immediately after the official closure of the sector. Government policy that crippled undergraduate finance has been a weightier problem for private than public since PHE depended almost solely on tuition from its undergraduates.

The strain of paying monthly rent, staff salaries, and other expenses was also a serious challenge. Under normal circumstances, along with salary, rent accounts for more than three-fourth of PHE’s monthly expenses. PHEIs were forced to ask for the postponement of payment periods, abandon some of their branches, and/or settle their rents by taking loans from other sources. While a limited number of institutions continued to pay salaries, the majority faced the increasing difficulties of meeting this responsibility. Making late payments, salary reductions and entering into litigations due to failure to pay such expenses were challenges faced by many HEIs.

Impact on employment

Many institutions have frozen new employment and stopped employing part-time workers who constitute a significant portion of the workforce in the private higher education sector which relies heavily on such staff. Another impact has been the reduction of the productivity of workers compared to the earlier days. Institutions also claim that the output of their employees has been reduced significantly after the disruption of classes. The pandemic is further expected to have a significant impact on the future employability of graduates (around 150,000 per annum) across both the public and private sectors.

Leadership challenges

The leadership in the private sector carried huge burdens in combating the impact of COVID 19 which was exacerbated by the sadness of the pandemic and the little preparation they had. Institutional limitation in collecting fees and paying salary and rent has created a condition whereby leaders had to abandon their normal plans and attend to day-to-day challenges. The declining work ethics and their failure to provide enough information about the fate of their institutions was another challenge. The struggles to convince students to pay and employees to share the financial strains they are going through were the major occupations of institutional leaders for the past several months.

Leaders were also perturbed by a high level of uncertainty and hopelessness as regards the fate of their institutions. Although they are hopeful about the start of classes in the last two months, the feeling of uncertainty still appears to linger in their disposition as adjusting to the ‘new normal’ cannot be an easy task. Further, the limited help obtained from the government so far appears to have worsened the feeling of hopelessness compounded by the fear of the unknown which still appears to haunt most of the leaders.

Conclusion

It is possible to envision a post-COVID future in which PHE has lost much bad as well as some good from its long-unbridled expansion and in which some of the fitter not only survive but improve their organizational management and certainly their use of technology in educational provision.

Private institutions still expect meaningful interventions in areas that include tax exemptions, long-term loans, rent waiver or reduction, direct financial support from the government, assistance with online platforms, reduced internet costs, facilitating student access to computers with reduced costs, etc.

It is understandable that the government is overwhelmed by a multitude of social, political, and economic pressures unleashed by COVID-19 as it is preparing for the reopening of higher education institutions. However, unless a substantial intervention is made in terms of assisting the PHE sector and/or influencing financial institutions to provide meaningful assistance, this sector, which boasts the largest number of students in Africa (Tamrat and Levy, 2017) and caters to the needs of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians will be significantly weakened.

While solving the challenges of the economy remains a key to addressing anticipated problems caused by COVID-19, the findings of this survey strongly point to the need for close monitoring of PHE to curb the continued impact of the pandemic. Further, continuous and fruitful dialogues are needed between the government and sector representatives in order to maintain the confidence of PHE institutions in government policy aimed at ensuring their survival.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an Associate Professor and Founding President of St. Mary’s University in Ethiopia. He is an affiliate scholar of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, US. He coordinates the Sub-Cluster for Private Higher Education in Africa under the African Union’s Higher Education Cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa, CESA 2016-25.


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When can we get back to “normal”? Long term predictions of the impact of Covid-19 on teaching in UK universities

by Katherine Deane

Probable Timelines

January – July 2021 – Expect to need to maintain non-pharmaceutical interventions – including social distancing, face masks, cleaning, and rapid tests. Exact interventions may vary with government guidance.

January 2021 – Rising levels of Covid-19 in the community after Christmas mixing may lead to further lockdown conditions.

February-April 2021 – End of Phase One vaccination program. Levels of Covid-19 in the community expected to be initially high, likely requiring some social restrictions to continue in the first few months.

April-July 2021 – End of vaccination of remainder of population. Covid-19 levels dropping across these months. Social restrictions likely to be reduced as the months progress.

Summer 2021 – End of pandemic in UK. Able to stop all non-pharmacological interventions.  Staff recover and take holiday.

Autumn 2021 – Start of term with normal teaching program.

The current situation in UK universities

Most universities are providing limited face-to-face teaching using non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent transmission such as social distancing and additional cleaning protocols. Some universities have implemented higher quality interventions such as the use of face masks indoors, and the availability of asymptomatic swab testing on campus. A few universities have gone to completely online provision. All of these interventions have helped reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in UK universities.

The initial exponential growth of Covid-19 cases at the start of term in many universities has slowed down. Some of this reduction has been due to non-pharmacological interventions and university specific restrictions on student activities. However the level of Covid-19 in the community has had significant impact on the levels in universities. So, claims for the efficacy of the Covid-19 safe workplace interventions are yet to be proven, particularly in the context of higher levels of community Covid-19 (Manchester University, 2020).

It is expected that the levels of Covid-19 in the community will continue to be high during winter months as the virus spreads more easily in indoor unventilated environments, and survives for longer in cooler temperatures (Huang, 2020).

Medical risks from Covid-19 are not equitably distributed. People at increased risk from Covid-19 are older, male, have other illnesses, or are from Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic populations (Williamson, 2020; ONS, 2020). It is recognised that young students are at low risk of having a poor acute reaction to being infected from Covid-19. But their risk of infection may be higher as students often live in overcrowded accommodation which substantially increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission (Williamson, 2020). Whilst a severe reaction to Covid-19 is rare, it’s not impossible, with a number of infected Manchester University students ending up in Intensive Care (Parker, 2020). Finally students are in contact with lecturers and support staff who represent a much wider range of ages and medical risks. They are also in contact with the local community and some students (e.g. those in health faculties) are in contact with patients, all of whom could be at higher risk from Covid-19 infection (SAGE, 2020).

A survey of staff at the University of East Anglia identified that about half of respondents were at greater risk from Covid-19 themselves, and/or were in households with people at greater risk or had caring responsibilities for people at greater risk (Figure 1: UCU UEA, 2020). This highlights how complex and interconnected modern society is. It is impossible to segregate those at greater risk from Covid-19 (SAGE, 2020; Griffin 2020).

Figure 1: Would you class yourself or those in your household as moderate or high risk from Covid-19? (UCU UEA 2020)

We now have a better understanding of Long Covid (ie symptoms for more than eight weeks) (Sudre et al, 2020). Long-COVID is characterised by symptoms of fatigue, headache, breathlessness and loss of sense of smell; but also evidence of organ damage (Dennis et al, 2020) and increased risk of neuropsychiatric complications as well (Butler et al, 2020). Long Covid occurs in one in 20 people infected with COVID-19 (Sudre et al, 2020). However it appears to be more common in younger age groups, and affects around 10% of 18-49 year olds who become unwell with COVID-19. It can be severe enough to prevent patients from returning to work or study, and can last for many months.

What happens next?

There is excellent news about a number of vaccines which have been shown to create good levels of immunity (Gallagher, 2020a; Gallagher, 2020b; Bosely 2020; Roth 2020). All the vaccines need two injections to be effective. The government plans a massive roll-out of vaccinations with GP practices (Kanani, 2020) supplemented with vaccination centres set up in conference centres, sports halls, community centres. The immunisation plans start in care home residents and staff at the start of December, with all high risk people and health and care staff immunised by the end of February 2021 (JCVI, 2020; Rapson, 2020). The vaccines would then be rolled out to everyone else with the aim to have the whole adult population of the UK vaccinated by April 2021. This would have massive impact as it would deliver herd immunity (estimated at 60-70% immunity) and stop the pandemic in its tracks. However a number of issues could lead to delays: vaccines need to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); some stocks of vaccines are already manufactured but more need to be created; vaccines need to be transported to the UK (which may be affected by Brexit); the -80oC cold storage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the transport process is challenging and failures will lead to the vaccine being unusable; finding sufficient staff to deliver the vaccines will be hard when the NHS has 100,000 job vacancies; and concerns about vaccine safety may lead to hesitancy and lower than needed uptake. Overall, the estimate of a successful vaccination program being completed by April is the very best case scenario.

Other factors such as greater availability of rapid Covid-19 tests will reduce the frequency of people having to isolate for extended periods of time, so social restrictions are likely to be reduced as the year goes on. However the risk of being infected with Covid-19 will remain relatively high during the first quarter of 2021. Until the population have been fully vaccinated, the proposal of allowing Covid-19 to circulate unchecked in order for the population to develop herd immunity from infections has been refuted as impractical and unethical (Griffin, 2020) and could actually increase the infectivity and lethality of the virus (Spinney, 2020; Bonneaud, 2019). Therefore universities need to be cautious and pragmatic and understand that both the spring and summer terms will almost certainly still need non-pharmacological interventions in place in order to ensure the safety of students, staff and the surrounding communities.

Impact on teaching practice

The University and College Union’s national position is that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work (UCU, 2020), for both the spring and summer terms in all universities. However, few universities have adopted this position. If face-to-face teaching is to continue it should remain at current levels with social distancing, with inevitable consequences in terms of room capacity and the need for repetition of teaching sessions in order to reach entire student cohorts.

As vaccinations start to be rolled out, individual risk levels may reduce, but overall the university community remains at high risk from infection, and of transmitting that to the community they live in (SAGE, 2020; McIntyre, 2020). So whilst it is expected that Covid-19 levels will reduce substantially as we head towards the summer, care should still be taken to reduce transmission on campus.

In addition university management should recognise how tired and burnt out their staff are, with the substantial effort of keeping universities running mostly virtually, and trying to maintain the quality of teaching alongside their own concerns about their health and the health of their friends and families. Many will have suffered losses; many will have supported students dealing with losses. Staff will need time to recover, to take holidays that were not taken during the pandemic, and to decompress from this stressful period of over-work. Then they will be able to return to campus in the autumn of 2021 able to teach effectively.

Don’t just return to ‘normal’

Not all of the pandemic lessons have been negative. I am a disabled lecturer who uses a wheelchair and has an energy limiting disability. I have found virtual working a huge advantage. Other staff with disabilities, caring responsibilities, or just long journeys to work may find the greater flexibility to work more from home also helpful. This flexibility will allow easier management of responsibilities in work and the rest of life. Students with similar issues may find accessing a university level education easier if some or all of their course was delivered virtually. It will be a challenge for university finances, but the opportunity for greater equity of access to university level education is undeniable.

SRHE member Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening

Reference UCU UEA. 2020. A survey of UCU members’ opinions on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and workload at UEA. University and College Union, University of East Anglia Branch. November 2020. Available from k.deane@uea.ac.uk on request