The great university covid regression?

fork in the road

The UK, late april 2020

“Pre-covid” life in the UK almost feels like an aeon ago, but we’re only six weeks into it. At the end of February I was in London, co-hosting an event with colleagues, and was still recruiting and interviewing participants for my research project in mid-March. How things have changed. On the 20th of March the schools closed and the government-ordered lockdown followed a few days later. For most of us, our worlds suddenly shrank.

Covid is a catastrophe on just about every level. As of today, 165,000 people in the UK have been infected (but without widespread testing this figure is likely to be higher) and over 26,000 people have died. Up to 8 million private sector workers may be unable to workunemployment is rising, the health service is struggling, and the economy is tanking. It’s terrible news for just about everyone, and I’m worried that this context is the setting for a regression around many of the persistent problems in higher education.

The pre-covid (recent) past

Where was higher education in the middle of March, before the pandemic and its effects really took hold? Overall, in a pretty bad place.

Socially, universities had – have – a mountain to climb. Inequalities in terms of access to higher education, particularly at the so-called “top” unis, is an ongoing problem. There is evidence of endemic racism, sexism, ableism, and snobbery, throughout the sector – as there is in other industries. Students of colour, from working class or disadvantaged backgrounds, identifying as LGBTQI+, and/or with a disability, are less likely to enjoy their time at university, more likely to drop out or get lower grades, and won’t do as well on the job market if they do graduate. This is as true (if not more so) on the academic job market, with limited, unequal, and treacherous pathways through postgraduate study/PhDs and the early career stages. It’s a paradox that universities do cutting edge work in understanding and addressing social inequalities but they’re incredibly sluggish when it comes to making practical progress in them.

Many universities have borrowed heavily to invest in refurbishments and new buildings to attract fee-paying students.

The middle of March also saw the end of a second round of strike action over pensions, precarious jobs, pay, and pay gaps. On the pension front, the pension fund managers are looking to increase contributions and reduce final pensions, which has been resisted around fundamental disagreements on the value – and therefore health and sustainability – of the pension fund itself. Pay hasn’t kept up with inflation and the pay differentials between genders and ethnic groups (which shouldn’t exist at all) are shockingly wide. Workloads are excessive, leading to widespread mental health problems for staff. Alongside that, universities have bought into a model of fixed term, limited (and zero) hours contracts for a lot of the complex work that goes on in the sector, making career prospects and stability – and paying bills – a pressing problem for thousands of academics and other higher education staff.

Alongside all of this, status hierarchies – which relate to research funding allocations and student recruitment – and are unjustifiably pronounced. Rankings and other measures of “excellence” (the most overused and meaningless word in the sector) reproduce and magnify these hierarchies. Competition between universities is so intense that there seems to be little to no sense of solidarity at the inter-organisational level, rather clusters of similar universities pitted against each other while the oldest and wealthiest retain an excessive dominance. Underpinning this is a financial model which loads huge government-backed debts onto students, a large proportion of which can’t be paid back. Many universities have borrowed heavily to invest in refurbishments and new buildings to attract fee-paying students, too. Let’s not forget Brexit, either, which is likely to lead to reductions in our ability to attract international staff, students and EU grant funding.

And now enter Covid, stage right.

The covid present

The most obvious effect on universities has been a pretty much overnight emptying of campuses, sites that are ordinarily populated by thousands of people, many of whom live there. They must be deserted now, apart a skeleton staff and a small number of solitary students who are unable or unwilling to return home, or don’t have a home to return to. For international students, far from their support networks and with no foreseeable prospect of returning to them, it must be incredibly difficult. All taught classes, assessments and exams, most practical/lab work, and the endless array of meetings, conferences and other events, have either been moved online or cancelled.

This migration of resources, and the effort involved in doing this, is a story in itself. I work in a department which conducts most of its teaching online, but at short notice a week’s residential of intense teaching had to be rapidly converted into recorded sessions, webinars, discussion fora, and so on. For the teaching and support staff, it was some undertaking. For colleagues who are involved in providing/supporting predominantly face to face teaching, it’s a monumental task. What we’re currently doing is a stop-gap, adapting in-class teaching to online provision, which is very different from pre-planned distance learning.

One silver lining here is that disability groups have long campaigned for more accessible and online provision, which many universities have hitherto resisted. It’s amazing what they can do when they’re forced to. There are also question marks about ed-tech companies doing very well as they profit from both selling online platforms and the data their usage generates – it’s a murky business, both pedagogically and morally. Beyond that, underpinned by the stress of covid-related worry and full-time childcare, all of the regular bureaucratic business of universities continues: the planning and strategising, interim problem solving, maintaining relationships, dealing with changes in government policy, collaborative grant writing and bid submission, as well as setting up contingency plans around covid.

The post-covid higher education future?

There is an ongoing discussion about how/whether the pandemic will force us to do a social reset for the better. Our renewed appreciation for the long-underfunded public services, precarious care and agriculture workers, underpaid and overworked teachers, and so on, could – should – result in a rebalancing of our priorities. More money for the people and things that are really important, and with less travel, too. I’d absolutely love to see these things happen, but they won’t, they can’t. The levers of power sit so snugly in the hands of wealthy self-interest that we’ll see an approximation of business as usual, or maybe something worse as changes are brought about under the guise of post-covid economic woes.

How about in universities? Could we see a dialling back of financial imperatives, a re-prioritising of higher education as stable, collegial, better-paid, less lean and micromanaged, and less cut-throat? I doubt it, these things seem hard-wired into the ethos, and universities’ most pressing concern is going to be balancing the books. Other than providing furlough support, the government doesn’t seem interested in propping the universities up; the irony here is that while many universities have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into competitive market conditions, those conditions were forced on them by the state. University leaderships have partly dug their own hole, but the government has certainly given them the shovel. For those institutions who have been sailing close to the financial wind, this is very much squeaky bum time, if not bust time. Loans for new buildings still need to be serviced, and many of those loans will have been taken out against optimistically projected student numbers. Face to face teaching may resume in September or perhaps in January, but we have no idea what student numbers will look like.

What is already a difficult situation for early career academics will get worse, leaving what could be several cohorts of PhD graduates without a way into academic careers.

International student numbers are likely to be plummet as people are less willing to travel to post-covid (and post-Brexit) Britain. Poor economic conditions elsewhere may make studying abroad too expensive, and others could be nervous about being stuck overseas if we see a renewed, or a different, pandemic. The higher status universities rely heavily on international students, not least because they’re more able to attract them due to their ranking positions – and non-EU students pay at least double for the same education at domestic students. The loss of that income might be partially recovered by attracting more UK students, in which case the lower-ranked universities will take a huge hit. (N.B. There is no evidence that the education at a high status university is better; it may actually be worse.) I’m assuming here that domestic students will still want to study – with the economy and job market in tatters, it’s probably a more attractive proposition.

The academic job market is already slowing down as universities implement hiring freezes. They are also shedding/not renewing fixed term and hourly-paid positions. The “benefit” of these contracts is that the university has no long-term responsibility for them, but it’s a terrible model for most of those staff. State funding for research is likely to be reduced, too. The majority of this is already guzzled up by relatively few universities, and the pickings will be even leaner for the rest. Overall, this will mean less associated research positions, and less buy-out for permanent staff to hire adjunct academics while they’re doing research. What is already a difficult situation for early career academics will get worse, leaving what could be several cohorts of PhD graduates without a way into academic careers. Maintaining online teaching and other work, as well as resuming face-to-face activities as and when it happens, will therefore fall on fewer, already overworked staff under the auspices of “difficult decisions” and “challenging times”. The pension fund is no doubt going to be in terrible shape, too, as the global stock markets are volatile and losing value. This provides firmer grounds for changing the terms and conditions for the worse.

We’re already seeing a fall in journal submissions by women as they carry more of the domestic/child care work under lockdown.

These are the obvious things. Below the surface, there is also a real risk of losing ground in the social justice stakes. For universities, “essential” will mean income-generating as they desperately try to cut costs, sustain themselves, and continue paying those loans. The students’ experience will deteriorate as less staff do more with bigger class sizes, allowing less time for close-quarters teaching and interaction. Support services may also be scaled back – study skills, mental health support, student societies and facilities, decolonising and other inclusion initiatives, and so on. As a result, the long-running inequalities for marginalised students in terms of entry, engagement, and outcomes, will either stagnate or deteriorate. For staff, too, we may see less action around changing cultures in terms of bullying and harassment, pay gaps, and promotion differentials. We’re already seeing a fall in journal submissions by women as they carry more of the domestic/child care work under lockdown; I suspect grant applications will go the same way. Unless this is accounted for, promotions and senior positions will continue to favour the same – and perhaps more – white, middle class men as in generations past.

The future is not bright, and this could be a long, slow dark spot for both wider society and for universities. Universities aren’t deserving of special treatment, but without a change in government and sectoral logics, the road ahead does not look good at all. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I’m filled with dread for the next few years in higher education as a whole.


This post was originally published on Stuff About Unis.


Richard Budd is a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department of Educational Research at the University of Lancaster. He is mostly interested in how students’ experiences vary between universities and countries. His profile can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter.


Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels

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