Simon J. Williams and Jonathan Gabe

Much has already been written and spoken about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on higher education, not least the financial impacts, the implications for inequalities within the system, the consequences for students, and the civic role of universities during and beyond the pandemic.

At one and the same time, we’ve seen a rapid migration to online teaching in higher education during the pandemic. Whilst this is understandable in these circumstances, it is nevertheless useful to take stock, given the rapidity of these developments. In Part I of this post therefore we focus on how these latest fast-forward online teaching developments are playing out during the pandemic, the debates they have so far engendered, and how they connect to wider trends and transformations sweeping through the academy in neoliberal times. In Part II, in contrast, we consider the implications of these latest online developments for the future of higher education post-pandemic.

Developments during the Pandemic
Universities, as we know, have had to move fast in a short space of time to get things online during the pandemic, including both existing teaching content and adapted assessment methods in the absence of the usual sat summer exams. There has been a drive to record and live stream lectures, and use new online materials, with the hosting of meetings, seminars and supervision taking place through things like MS Teams and Zoom and the University and College Union (UCU) issuing guidance on working from home and teaching online.

Problems nevertheless are already evident. For students, whose academic year has already been disrupted by strike action, soundings so far suggest that the provision of this online material is quite variable from course to course and university to university. Problems of remote teaching and learning during the pandemic have also been raised for BAME university students and students with disabilities. And then of course there is the feeling of being ‘short-changed’ by all this with the potential for students demanding fees back due to online only delivery.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, for example, the NUS vice president (higher education) highlighted how the 3 million NUS members across higher education are ‘really struggling’ with the move to online teaching, with a fifth of members unable to access online education at all either through ‘digital poverty’ or because of needing to be ‘on placements’, especially those such as nursing students on the frontline at the moment. Thousands of students are also, it is reported, caught in ‘rent traps’ by being forced to pay for unused accommodation by private landlords. As such the NUS are asking for a ‘student safety net’ to provide for this generation of learners, and the chance to write off or reimburse this year of tuition fees.

As for staff, the challenges of delivering this digital content online in such a short space of time are of course considerable too. As one colleague said to us at another university: ‘The shift to online has been a challenge.  Courses which were designed for face-to-face are being reimagined and this often involves creating and giving more… so there have been workload implications…. In some courses no one turns up for the zoom. In others, you are trying to create interactive sessions for 30 people mediated by technology probably designed for something else.’ 

Early findings from an online survey of staff in higher education faced with these rapid changes suggest that academics, especially UK academics, feel ‘unprepared, inadequately supported and deeply fearful.’ They reportedly, according to this survey, see this rapid switch to online teaching as something of a ‘culture-change moment’ with fears of ‘deskilling, obsolescence and ultimately, unemployment.’  Findings from other recently conducted research, prior to the pandemic, also suggest a complex picture regarding ‘the potential and pitfalls of putting the University experience online for staff and students alike.

Concerns over privacy, security and intellectual property equally loom large in this new online landscape of teaching and research, including risks of so-called ‘Zoombombing’ where Zoom meetings are disrupted in various ways. Talk of ‘zoom fatigue’, or fatigue from any other video-calling interface for that matter, is also now emerging, within and beyond academia, given ‘virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.’

Despite all this, the view from former education ministers such as Jo Johnson and Lord David Willets is broadly positive. Jo Johnson for example, in a Times Higher Education online debate about the future of higher education post-pandemic, clearly states that this ‘rapid pivot’ to remote teaching can in some ways be seen as a ‘necessary forcing process’ which may in time not only ‘unlock global markets’ – in ‘income groups such as Asia and Africa where young people do not necessarily want the full-fat, high-cost, three- to four-year programme living in an English-speaking country’ — but also serve as a ‘huge boost’ to widening participation efforts in coming years. Speaking subsequently on the aforementioned PM programme, he also emphasised how it is tough for everybody right now, how students need to recognise universities are making a ‘massive effort’ and make adjustments too, and how these requests for discounts or reimbursements are only likely to happen in the most extreme cases of poor of sub-standard provision.

As for Lord Willetts, well what’s happening now, by his reckoning, is ‘just the start’ with the potential to do new things differently in future, with Chris Skidmore adding that there needs to be a debate about what good online teaching looks like which places tutors ‘at the centre’. ‘At its best’, Lord Willets states, ‘online pedagogy is very sophisticated, using data about what [students] are doing to improve the quality of the educational experience,’ adding that ‘this takes a lot of work.’ He also sees potential payoffs for low carbon futures, with international academic travel reduced in these ways in line with commitments to zero carbon campuses.

As for plans going forward into next year, well news at the time of writing has just broken that there will be no face-to-face lectures at the University of Cambridge over the next academic year, due to the coronavirus, with other universities now apparently following suit. Instead lectures will be available to students online with the possibility perhaps of smaller group teaching in person, if social distancing requirements are met. Reports too are now circulating that students starting University in the autumn are facing tough decisions about what to do next year, with up to a fifth apparently now apparently considering deferral.

Situating these Developments: The Bigger Picture
To fully understand the implications of these latest digital developments however, we need to place them in the context of wider trends and transformations sweeping through the academy, and the associated debates and disputes they have given rise to. Trends and transformations, that is to say, to do with the marketisation of higher education, the recasting of students as consumers, the growth of audit culture and performance management, and associated problems to do with falling pay, pay gaps, casualization, increasing workloads, rising stress levels and changes to pensions.

Trends and transformations too, of course, of the digital kind, which again were already evident prior to the pandemic and embedded in the wider trends and transformations mentioned above. Again, much has already been written on the digitalisation of academic life and labour, including for example, the use of social media and other digital media in academia, the challenges and opportunities which big data provides in education, the increasing metricisation and  quantification of academic life, the growth of open access publication and open education, and the increasing platformisation of our universities.

Four key issues nevertheless are particularly important to stress at this critical juncture, with these wider developments and debates in mind.

First, we have all of course, to an unprecedented degree, moved online during the pandemic, from shopping to work and from socialising to schools and many other public services. Academia on these counts then is far from alone here. Moreover, to the extent that these developments were already occurring to some degree in academia, prior to the pandemic, then what we are witnessing now is simply a variant on these existing developments, albeit a rapid wholesale transition in scale and speed at present which connects to these wider digital trends and transformations sweeping through the academy in recent times.

A second key issue, closely bound up with these latest digital developments, concerns debates regarding the acceleration of academic life and associated calls for the development of slow or slower universities (see for example here, and here). You don’t indeed need to be an expert on our body clocks or the social acceleration thesis to know what this feels like these days. Again this current fast-forward drive to online teaching will do little to help here, if not further accelerate the pace and tempo of academic life: the latest chapter in other words in the social acceleration storyline. The prospect too, as already noted, of more accelerated programmes of study in future also looms large here, for those at least wanting leaner, lighter offerings in the online global marketplace of higher education.

A third important set of issues concerns the associated fears and anxieties these changes engender, and their short and long-term impacts on health and wellbeing. Whilst many of us are suffering from fear and anxiety during the pandemic, and whilst academia on these counts may still be seen as relatively protected and privileged, the fact remains that stress and anxiety are endemic features of higher education, for staff and students alike; problems which the current crisis and the rapid switch to online or remote teaching, coupled with the considerable hardships which many students are experiencing, will do little or nothing to help and is likely to worsen. Hence talk of an ‘epidemic’ of ‘poor mental health’ in our universities today even before the pandemic. What this amounts to, in other words, is another prime example of what Ros Gill appositely terms the ‘hidden injuries of neoliberal academia’. Whilst ‘thriving’ at work moreover is the new mantra, and whilst health and wellbeing may be the expressed organisational goals of any self-respecting institution these days, academic or otherwise, the fact remains that academics all too often feel they are struggling to survive let alone thrive. Again this feeling resonates with the latest academic online survey findings where health and wellbeing are big concerns for university staff struggling with these changes. And whilst some will doubtless embrace these latest digital developments with great relish, particularly those trail-blazers already working in digital pedagogy and cognate fields, others will probably be driven more by fear than enthusiasm in rising to the challenge. Fear that is to say about their jobs being on the line, fear about precarious forms of employment, fear about falling behind, fear about not being seen to be flexible enough, and fear too about the prospects of promotion if one doesn’t tick all these boxes.

A fourth and final reflexive point concerns the way in the current Covid crisis, and the rush to construct viable online teaching and learning resources in the face of it, helps us to see all the more clearly the context within which our universities are operating today, and the costs and consequences of this for staff and students alike.

As for what this tell us, if anything, about the future of higher education, see Part II of this post to find out …


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, Royal Holloway University.