Will academia’s future require a?secret liquor cabinet?

University finances are supposedly staring into the abyss – but we shouldn’t get giddy, says Paul Jump

April 30, 2020
chair on wheels
Source: Getty

So here you are. You’ve bought yourself a half-decent office chair from the online retailer with the least bad reputation for labour relations you could find. You’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you can’t claim the cost back on expenses even though you’d never have bought such a bulky, expensive monstrosity if home-working hadn’t wreaked havoc with your lower back. And you’ve finally worked out how to quickly mute your Zoom microphone when your toddler bursts into your home office/kitchen demanding more biscuits.

You’re as prepared as you can be for unknown multiples of months of being locked down – to a degree of security that bears at least some relation to whether it is the virologists, epidemiologists, behavioural scientists or economists whose advice appears to the politicians to open the door to re-election.

Apologies to Simon from the press office for such cynicism, but the offence is not unique in this edition of Times Higher Education. Chris Chambers, head of brain stimulation at Cardiff University, is another offender. Chambers is among the contributors to our cover feature on what academics most miss about life on the physical campus. Simon, he concedes, would have him intone that it is the students he most misses. And, as our news pages reflect, this is a view that Nigel from finance would very much echo – particularly regarding international students. But Chambers admits that his feeling about absent students – and colleagues – very much depends on the individual in question.

What he misses more, he wryly remarks, are some of the more bespoke aspects of his university office. These include a stunningly hardy pot plant (presumably still going strong despite not having been watered for a month) and his “hidden liquor cabinet, kept well away from the prying eyes of human resources”.

Irina Dumitrescu’s angst, meanwhile, focuses on what she used to do before she got to her office. The professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn used to think that she lingered in the departmental office, with its cast of wise and sympathetic secretaries, merely to pick up her mail. “But I’ve realised that this daily ritual was actually a way of connecting to other people before heading to the loneliness of a blank page or the anonymous noise of my email inbox,” she writes.

For Robert Zaretsky – as befits an expert on Albert Camus – the sense of loss is more existential. The professor in the Honors College at the University of Houston is no longer convinced that knowing a lot about the author of The Plague is worth a hill of beans compared with the life-saving expertise of his medical colleagues across campus. “Take the teacher out of the physical classroom and you take away the reason for professional being,” he laments.

Whatever Donald Trump may want to happen, it seems likely that Zaretsky will be staring into the abyss for some time to come. And, as Matt Jenner, head of learning at the online course platform FutureLearn, notes in our lead opinion article, whatever the joys of new home-office chairs, it is questionable how long academics will be able to sustain the huge effort of doing all their teaching and assessment online with precious little preparation or training. “Quality and enthusiasm will wear out,” he fears.

Jenner’s solution is for universities to collaborate on establishing a series of high-quality online courses focused on generic graduate and postgraduate skills, rather than specific disciplines. What students would make of such a proposition is another matter. And while disciplinary experts might welcome the respite, they might also fear being furloughed – or worse, if this new approach to higher education caught on.

There is an abundant sense in the sector and beyond that there will be consequences of the coronavirus that long outlive its direct power to upend life (Zaretsky himself fears that he “may never recover the sense of being professionally essential”). The most common prognosis is that Covid-19 will infect students with an enduring enthusiasm for studying online in their own countries.

But while the short term will clearly be very difficult (witness the University of Manchester’s warning of a £270 million loss in the next year), the longer-term effect is less clear. Young people’s sense of adventure will not be easily cowed. Moreover, memory is short when you are 18. The current crop of English university applicants are already too young to recall a time when tuition fees of £9,000 seemed unthinkable, or Moocs were the future of higher education. And history is littered with events that, at the time, seemed world-changing but left little long-term cultural impression.

If that observation also seems cynical in the midst of a global pandemic, apologies, once again, to Simon from the press office. But if Covid-19 does once again illustrate the limited power of relatively short, sharp shocks to change long-term behaviour, at least Nigel from finance won’t need to set up a secret liquor cabinet when he is finally allowed to return to his campus office.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A bracing shot of reality

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