Universities have, without doubt, risen to the immediate challenge of responding to COVID-19. They are at the forefront of research efforts to discover vaccines and treatments, while also providing healthcare, training, and community support. They have re-purposed their laboratories to make essential equipment and their buildings to house healthcare workers, whilst at the same time providing the expertise and evidence that has proven essential in supporting government decision making.
Universities are more than a collection of buildings, and so whilst campuses have been largely closed, universities have remained very much open as seats of learning and teaching, research and innovation, and societal engagement. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities to find new ways to do things at an unprecedented speed. Many have reported doing, in a matter of days or weeks, what would usually have taken months or even years. In addition to innovations in digital learning and teaching, we have seen new ways of keeping students and staff connected, and of working collaboratively.
What comes next must be a reflection on how to capitalise on the changes that have taken place in recent months. Take digitally enhanced learning and teaching, for example, which has undoubtedly been accelerated by the crisis. Of course, many of the actions taken were emergency measures: a quick shift to remote teaching, rather than a considered transition to new methodologies, backed up with training and investment in digital infrastructure. However, the fact remains that it has shown possibilities and developed understanding to an extraordinary degree. Similarly, take student mobility. No one would suggest that a virtual experience is the same as a physical one, but the thought of how to maintain international opportunities when travel is not an option could offer new perspectives for internationalisation. In short, the measures taken in response to COVID-19 can assist universities in reflecting on what constitutes good higher education and how best to deliver it.
What also comes out of this pandemic is the recognition that we will need to be ready for the next global crisis. At an institutional level, this means evaluating the crisis management mechanisms in place and strengthening them if necessary. At a political level, it means cementing the principle of evidence-based policy making, following the advice given by universities and others to both predict and plan for future emergencies and to respond when they happen. It also means continued and substantial investment in education, research and innovation. Research investment cannot just be problem-oriented, important though this is, but also has to be curiosity-driven, to increase the sum of human knowledge.
“We do not know what the next crisis will be, but the more we know about the world we live in, the better we will be able to deal with it.”
Make no mistake, the university sector will have serious challenges to meet and therefore we cannot look at the future through rose-tinted glasses. In the short-term, there are the logistics of how to physically reopen campuses and keep staff and students safe. There are significant financial risks, be it in terms of loss of fees income, student finances, or longer-term consequences as the inevitable economic downturn starts to bite. There is a risk to internationalisation, at a time when it is evident that challenges must be tackled collectively. Furthermore, the current crisis has served to increase ine-quality in wealth and access, and to highlight the digital divide.
Universities will not, and should not, go back to how they were before the pandemic, but should embrace this moment as a catalyst for positive change.
Amanda Crowfoot joined EUA as Secretary General in January 2020. She is responsible for co-developing and implementing the Association’s strategic plan and is an ambassador for all members, presenting a collective vision of strong universities in Europe and leading a team of 40 staff members in offices in Brussels and Geneva. Amanda previously served as Director of Science Europe, and from 2001 to 2012, Amanda worked at the UK Research Office first as a European Advisor, and then as Director of the Office.