by Leo Goedegebuure and Lynn Meek
LAST February none of us had any idea of the scale of what was about to unfold. We had thought (COVID-19) would disrupt our sector but we had also thought that national and institutional systems would be able to deal with this. With the benefit of hindsight anyone may call this naïve, but for many of us the concepts of “institutional thickness” and “innovation” resulted in a belief that we “could deal with this”. As this special issue demonstrates, we were very wrong.
What becomes very clear from the accounts presented in this volume, is the absolute level of unpreparedness of our nation-states for what has come over us. One can argue this is a once-in-a-lifetime event and hence it is not surprising that a degree of chaos emerged when the virus took hold. We would argue that from a public policy perspective this is a “cop-out.”
We do have to note the very different action-sets taken by our tertiary institutions across the countries documented in this volume. They range from an almost singular focus on solidarity and community to an equally singular focus on the bottom line and staff retrenchments. It is not for us to pass judgement on what for each and every institution will have been challenging decisions. But it is for us to note the vulnerabilities our sector is confronted with, and where our differing political choices and priorities over the past decade have landed us.
What jumps out of these pages is a predominant sense of frustration. Of not being able to engage as deeply with our students as we would have liked and have done in the past. In some countries, international students have suffered particularly hard, with many left destitute and not allowed to return to their home countries. There is little doubt that in part this is looking at this past through a bit of a rosy lens. A bit like the hallowed belief in the collegial academy. But equally, and probably more, there is a true sense of not delivering to our students what they came to our institutions for in the first place. On-line study certainly can work and does work, blended learning without a doubt has strong future potential, as is reflected in many of the contributions. But the notions of place-based education and community come through very strongly, both in the writing and the visuals that are part of this issue.
In similar vein, a clear feeling of isolation is reflected in the contributions. Working from home can be done. Zoom and similar technologies can bring people together. But it is not the same as the coffee machine or coffee shop discussion with colleagues, let alone the Friday afternoon social get-togethers. It clearly impacts on productivity, creativity and mental wellbeing. It highlights that both academics and professional staff need personal interaction to optimise the effectiveness of their work. No technology can compensate for that. Interestingly, whilst some report serious disruptions for their research activities, others much more see this as relatively un-impacted.
Yet, we should also note the positives we find in this Issue. International research collaboration to find “a” vaccine. An academic and professional community that still can manage to make things come together and deliver to our communities. And some very impressive accounts of concerted institutional responses to the challenges we have faced in 2020. It indeed has been tough, but it also has not all been gloom and doom, as this diverse set of contributions very clearly demonstrates.
Our final observation is on the reflections for the future. There is a strong consensus amongst our contributors that this year’s experiences will have a lasting impact on our sector.
We have already mentioned blended learning. But some of the contributions raise more fundamental questions about the role of our sector in the face of global challenges and our ability to respond or perhaps even play a leading role in driving change.
Others have raised some quite challenging questions about the role of research and its foundations. Is it really about investigation, analysis and reflection, or are we sliding towards the mere reproduction of information? And questions have been raised about the make-up of our sector, the drivers for executive management, and fundamentally what we are here for. The latter may be a bit too existentialist for some of us, but we feel it is worth reflecting on whether we still adhere to the mission(s) of tertiary education compared to the strong business imperatives that have been driving the sector over the last decennium across continents. We do not have the answers to this, but it certainly is food for thought.
Having said that, we should also recognise that predictions on the future of our sector based on a very disruptive period are wrought with difficulty and challenges. They clearly are pointers for discussion, and a discussion we must have. But the outcomes of this are far from certain given the complexity of the challenges ahead. From the perspective of tertiary education research this without a doubt is a positive as well as a serious responsibility. For Studies it means rigorously sticking to the quality of our submissions and providing thought leadership for the future development of our sector, preferably through a comparative lens.
Leo Goedegebuure and Lynn Meek (both Uni Melbourne) are respectively present and past editor in-chief of Studies in Higher Education. This is an extract from their introduction to a special edition of the journal (46, I, 2021), “The impact of a pandemic-a global perspective.”