Simon J Williams and Jonathan Gabe

In Part I of this post we considered the rapid switch to online teaching and how this connects to wider trends and transformations sweeping through the academy. In Part II we consider what the likely implications of these latest digital developments might be for the future of higher education. We also return to the deeper question this raises of what higher education is for.

Futures in the Making
Clearly this is a fast-moving field. It is difficult therefore to tell, with any degree of certainty, how things will play out post-pandemic. A number of possibilities suggest themselves nevertheless in thinking through these futures and their likelihoods.

First, the future of higher education will become more and more digitised, that much is clear. There is ‘no escaping the digital’ indeed, as Deborah Lupton and colleagues’ state, with distinctions between online and offline already being fast erased if not entirely obliterated. What we have here then, in thinking through this latest migration to online teaching and remote learning is simply the latest chapter in this ongoing storyline of the digitalised academy, from remote teaching by the Open University to newer forms of online teaching and learning such as Moodle and MOOCs – or Massive Open Online Courses, if you prefer. Viewed in this context then, it is hard to see these latest forms of online teaching and remote learning disappearing altogether post-pandemic. It is true, of course that online teaching of this kind is nothing like the fully ‘immersive experience’ of learning face-to-face on campus with your peer group, let alone the social life that accompanies going to university and being a student away from home. It is also true that some subjects are more difficult to deliver online than others. And it is equally clear that many students feel short-changed by this rapid switch to remote teaching and learning at present and therefore want their money back. Concerns moreover, on the quality count, are now being raised by a Russell group head too that ‘the crisis renders many policy metrics unreliable and “valueless” owing to “pandemic shocks.”’

Even so, it seems unlikely that universities will ditch these latest online developments altogether, not least because, as previously noted in Part I, they open up new possibilities for widening participation, new potential global markets later down the line post-pandemic, and new ways of reducing our carbon footprints too in line with zero carbon campuses in future. In these ways then, it is likely that a new mix of interactive face-to-face forms of instruction coupled with at least some of these new online forms of teaching and learning will remain post-pandemic, in incremental fashion, with further measures to monitor and metricise these moves  in future as part and parcel of audit culture. Alternatively however it could be, given the current student qua consumer backlash against these latest digital developments, that a return to more or less face-to-face only teaching occurs once the pandemic is over, with these other forms of online teaching and remote learning delivered elsewhere in the main in an increasingly diversified global marketplace.

Second, it is clear that a complex landscape of challenges as well as opportunities present themselves here going forward in terms of the future of higher education and the university as we know it, ‘Unbundling, ‘Uberized’ or otherwise. On the one hand this online teaching has served to keep education going during the pandemic, with potential opportunities for valuable new forms of pedagogy and learning to emerge, both now and in future. On the other hand, concerns and problems regarding these technologies, and the wider trends and transformations they are part of, were already being voiced by staff and students alike even before the pandemic. This for example, as Bristow and colleagues report — based on their own extensive research on the ‘University experience’ — includes staff and student concerns over the ways these new technologies are ‘diluting’ the depth of traditional staff-student teaching and pastoral relations, in favour of a more ‘massified, depersonalised and disembodied’ model. Whilst these technologies then undoubtedly have their benefits, they are also problematic on these and other counts too. The challenge therefore going forward, as Bristow and colleagues aptly put it, will be to develop new ways of working with these technologies which ‘support’ rather than ‘substitute’ for these valued academic-staff relations and to keep this relationship central to the project of the academy in future.

Third, and closely linked to this second point, whilst deskilling is an understandable fear and a real possibility going forward, as early findings from the online survey of academics suggest, it may instead result perhaps, for staff on permanent contracts at least, in new forms of reskilling in academia in future. This, for example, might include new experiments in and ways of ‘flipping classrooms’ which benefit staff and students alike, and new data skills and data analytics in teaching and research given the challenges and opportunities of big data and open education. Instructive parallels on this count may be drawn with debates on the future of the medical profession where, despite the so-called ‘assault’ upon of its knowledge base through information technologies and the challenge of the informed consumer, medicine is not so much being deskilled or deprofessionalised as re-professionalised in response to these challenges. To the extent however, returning to academia, that these latest digital developments result, sooner or later, in an ever more diversified series of online offering, including a series of shorter, leaner online programmes of study in the global marketplace, we may also witness an increase in teaching only contracts, short-term or otherwise, to service them throughout the academic year, thereby resulting in further divisions of academic labour and more precarious forms of employment.

A fourth critical issue, picking up on points made previously in part 1, concerns the contexts within which these fast-forward digital developments are situated. Whilst the current Covid-crisis has undoubtedly, as many commentators have suggested, exposed the limits and weaknesses of neoliberalism, as a ‘breaching experiment’ of sorts, it seems pretty likely that it will survive and grind on, wounded, weakened or otherwise, in academia and elsewhere. So more of the same for higher education it seems, in England at least, albeit with the addition of a new drive for cuts and ‘efficiency’ savings in response to the ‘black hole’ in finances following the crisis. It may even be the case that universities use this crisis as a further opportunity to ‘restructure’ themselves, with apparently ‘less popular subjects’ being cut (in line with a consumerist logic), leading to some of these subjects being taught in fewer and fewer institutions. Administrators and support staff too may be axed as academic units are merged in the name of financial prudence. Talk of ‘mergers’ indeed is already starting to appear. On these counts then, returning the third point above, this begins to look more like something akin to proletarianisation than re-professionalisation, including more precarious employment and redundancies to follow. The ‘Uberization’ of our Universities indeed!

Perhaps the most we can hope for therefore in the foreseeable future – in the absence that is of a wholesale overhaul of this neoliberal model and a return to a proper publically-funded higher education system as a public good — is a tamed, less-marketised, more humane version of neoliberalism, in academia as elsewhere. For example, in higher education, this might include at the very least trusting staff more, measuring less, ending casualization and slowing down just a little if not a lot the pace and tempo of academic life, thereby helping: (i) restore at least a semblance of what academic life used to be like; (ii) reduce stress levels; and, (iii) realise more fully the thriving at work agenda.

As for the chances of this or anything remotely more radical happening, well Covid-19, as already noted, has served to problematize still further the logics of a marketised system driven by the relentless pursuit of profits and the insatiable need for growth at all costs. The current financial crisis in higher education indeed is another prime example of the problems of this marketised model, as Holmwood rightly comments. Social change moreover, as Mair reminds us, ‘can come from many places and with many influences’, including demands that ‘emerging social forms come from an ethic that values care, life and democracy’ above all else, thereby leaving us ‘more resilient’ in terms of future challenges and impending crises such as climate change. Even digital platforms, as Mark Carrigan reminds us, can provide viable and valuable alternatives to the logics of capital accumulation through new forms of collaboration, cooperation, openness and sharing, in academia and elsewhere, including Discover Society. There is hope still in other words, distant or otherwise.

Two further points are also important to stress in closing.

First, a return to the deeper question of what higher education is for is instructive in this light. Despite shifts in government policy in recent decades from viewing the university as a public good to a private investment, and the associated emphasis now on universities as gateways to careers, contributors to the economy and other measured impacts, the purpose of the university is still surely, as far as teaching is concerned, about cultivating in-depth, independent learning, developing deep academic-student relationships, broadening minds, and helping students to see things differently. And yes, learning for learning’s sake, not to mention scholarship for scholarship’s sake, however antiquated that may sound. There is also a need here, as Maria do mar Pereira has previously argued, to ask again in the context of these latest rapid developments, what the boundaries of ‘proper’ knowledge are, who defines them and how they are changing? And a need too, as Bristow and colleagues rightly state, to enhance rather than disrupt or destabilise the academic-student relationship.

The second and final point, in a reflexive vein, concerns the critical role of the social sciences in all this. A critical role, that is to say, in thinking through and investigating the complexities and contradictions, challenges and opportunities these latest digital developments pose, and their relation to the broader context and changes sweeping through higher education, digital and otherwise. A critical role too though, more widely, in making sense of the changes and challenges we are living through as the pandemic unfolds, and in thinking through possible futures post-pandemic, including those which take us beyond the current neoliberal model, broken, creaking or otherwise. A positive note to end on perhaps, in these far from positive pandemic times.


Simon Williams is Emeritus Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Jonathan Gabe is Emeritus Professor of Sociology in the School of Law and Social Sciences at Royal Holloway University of London.