Observations on the COVID State of Higher Education

I have always described myself as a lazy academic, particularly when it comes to teaching. If I’ve made innovations, it’s because they save me time and effort, first and foremost. When I or colleagues get super stressed from the drudgeries of academic life, I remind us: we’re not medics. If we screw up, no one dies.


The decision to bring students back to uni campuses is a LIFE OR DEATH choice. Not just for staff and students, but for the local communities. This doesn’t boil down to league tables or recruitment figures. Decisions being made in Higher Education (HE) right now can either cost lives or save them. Insisting on face-to-face (f2f) elements in university life and compelling students to return to campuses will cost lives.

2020, a Kingian dystopia

In person, on Twitter, Discord, Zoom, Skype, Teams, and Facebook (if I still hated myself enough to be doomscrolling Facebook): I keep having the same conversations with folks in HE, staff and students alike. Universities (at least those in the UK and the USA, the ones I affiliate with the most) are insisting on returning to at least some level of f2f teaching this semester.

Image of man face-palming and rolling his eyes
I made this face in April and now I’m stuck that way.

I have largely put a Someone Else’s Problem Field around the conversation (or attempted to, anyway), because my contract does not require me to teach for the next three years. (I know, right? How lucky could an academic get? That luck was pre-paid by some pretty awful times, so don’t envy me too much.) But I can’t stand it anymore.

I’ve had the myth of Cassandra percolating in my head for the last nine months, since I first saw those reports out of Wuhan, since the social media feeds from Italian doctors first trickled into mine. I knew it would hit us. I’ve been obsessed with plagues since I read The Stand as a kid. (Shameless plug, I’ve also written some plague-adjacent fiction.) Because I could, I stayed home, even before lockdown was announced (I was also lucky enough to not be teaching last semester. I was still in the middle of an anxiety breakdown, but that’s another story…). I saw that coming.

I even messaged a friend organising a conference for July to ask their Plan B, and they replied “oh, it’ll all have blown over by then”. Yeah, that conference was, obviously, all online, and was amazeballs, but I have to point out all my I-told-you-sos, because that’s what this essay is really for: so that in a few months’ time, I can have a record supporting my I-told-you-sos.

I negotiated remote working in my current contract, not only because it’s my preferred way to work (disabilities, home life, ecological impact, etc.), but also because I don’t see this situation resolving itself any sooner than two years. And I’ve been sitting here on my high horse ever since, rolling out predictions, having no one believe me, wash (20 seconds happy birthday), rinse, repeat. Thus I am going to lay it all out, Cassandra-style. Believe me or don’t. It ain’t no skin off my nose at this point, because I’m safe (ish — if HE goes under entirely, I’m sinking on that boat, too).

Image of woman freezing at sea, floating on a door (Titanic film reference)
I am alone on my door of sanity. Join me. There is room.

HE was already broken

We know this. Neoliberalism shattered it. We were already desperately trying to collect all the pieces, and failing miserably. The tenure system in the US has failed, as something like 75% of staff are now precarious adjuncts, and the UK is not far behind. Austerity (thanks, you conservative wankers!) killed education funding, and forced unis to become neoliberal capitalist corporations (subscription wall)— except without cultures or facilities that could sustain that sort of system. Tuition skyrocketed. No one can pay tuition or loans anymore. University was supposed to get people ahead in life; instead it saddled them with debt. And when unis did have a year or two in the black, did they invest in staff or learning resources? HELLS NO!!! They built residential halls.

Image of dog wistfully waiting next to a new cat habitat, captioned “Build it, you said. They will come, you said.”

In the UK, HEI executive boards happily ignored the current “demographic dip” while building these halls, too, because who needs an EIGHTEEN-YEAR warning that you are going to have fewer students? Not these guys. They took out capital debt to do so. Even if they hadn’t spent all their loan on buildings, when the dip came and they quadruple somersaulted into the red, they couldn’t use those funds for staff or marketing or ANYTHING other than building shit, so they wound up with empty buildings, mounds of debt, and some seriously pissed off faculties (USS strikes, anyone?).

I won’t get into the whole UK-HE system, with caps, accusations of grade inflation, league tables, and NSS shenanigans (subscription wall). Let’s just say it’s a grotesque mockery of merit-based funding complying with the golden-rule of the Jafar sort, and know that parity comes from EVERY university doing EXACTLY the same thing as every other university in order to compete in this Hunger Games of Higher Education. Been on any campus tours in the last 5 years? The only people making money these days are the signprinters who make the “TOP 5 uni in the UK*” banners plastered everywhere — all they have to do is swap out the name and logo of the institution. *Once we got done shiatsu massaging the league numbers, that is.

Image of disguised Jafar, Aladdin film: “You’ve heard of the golden rule, haven’t you? Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

It’s a rat race to see who can place third after Oxbridge (and really, 20-some-odd after Russell Group). Only no one works on anything special. Everyone must do what their competitor in the league table is doing, or they won’t be able to “compete”. For the island on which capitalism was first envisioned, the Brits sure don’t understand what free market competition is for: WINNING. It’s the English national football team all over. They play to TIE.

Anyway. HE in the UK (which is my primary focus here, because proximity) was already broken. The vase already fell to the tile, and it’s in a million shards. And then… COVID-19 the hapless toddler ran through and scattered all the pieces to hell and back.

What does UK-HE do? IT KEEPS TRYING TO COLLECT ALL THE PIECES TO JAM THEM TOGETHER WITH 50-YEAR-OLD CHEWING GUM IT GOT IN AN OLD PACK OF BASEBALL CARDS. (Okay, that last bit may be a little bit of personal experience, but you get the gist.)

Cartoon of dog in room on fire, drinking coffee, captioned “This is fine.”

Forget that we have lizard people (and/or Russians) running both the USA and the UK, governments DIRECTLY responsible for tens of thousands (soon to be hundreds of thousands! cries Cassandra) of deaths from COVID-19 because they didn’t do what they had plenty of time, opportunity, and existing models to DO, which was keep their populations safe from an obvious pandemic. What could have been a relatively quick lockdown-track-and-trace system (see: South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and even CHINA) and back to hunky-dory nihilistic modern life as usual with only a blip on the economy has become a never-ending nightmare of frat parties, beach hootenannies, COVID-deniers, outbreaks, job losses, and now, recession (get ready for its big brother, economic depression, y’all, Cassandra yawns). If these walking morality vacuums had, you know, governed instead of playing grab-ass with their Eton human centipede segments, HE would still just be broken, but not dumped down a garbage disposal (for you Brits, that’s the monster in Americans’ kitchen sinks that gobbles down fried chicken bones and your soul).

Okay, yeah, let’s forget that. (The Hague? Could you keep looking into that? K-thx-bai.)

Now we’re in April/May. Still in lockdown, everybody scrambling to shift to online-only classes and exams and keep their own kids from cutting each others’ ears off and feeding them to the cat. Those times were nice feels, yeah? People pulled together. Management did everything it could to get software in place, to get computers to staff, to make allowances for students, to say that staff were important and should have good mental health (they SAY it, anyway). Students tried their blessed little hearts out on laptops and mobile devices. We survived. It was drama and it was hella hard work, but we got through it together.

Image of Dorothy, Tin Woodman, Scarecrow, and Lion from 1939 Wizard of Oz film.

Then, it was easy (scary, but easy) to see universities should not resume f2f in the Autumn Semester (I’m going to leave the conversation about elementary and secondary schools to others more in the know — there are lots of thorny issues there, too). We already get sick in the first month after Welcome Week with all the new germ churning. No way it’s going to be better with COVID-19 in the mix. So let’s spend the next few months (knowing that we’re all in the same boat, and ain’t nobody getting any research done this year — except men, of course MEN) “pivoting” to online teaching for the coming year.

That was the early word. Responsible. Smart. Forward thinking. And actually positive for employees because it’s rather clear what their remit is. Until it wasn’t.

Gradually, we began getting rumbles. “My uni is talking f2f for seminars”; “Mine is telling us to prepare for both in-person and online classes”; “Students are insisting they get the ‘uni experience’”. Not scared of a little thunder, are you?

Loki GIF saying “I’m not overly fond of what follows.”

To mix weather metaphors, that rumble of thunder quickly became an avalanche. Soon it was confirmed: X Uni will have f2f teaching; students at Y uni will be required to be on campus for some learning; back to normal for Z uni.

Why? Because HE is reactive and myopic, that’s why. We’re back to league table mentality here. Once Oxbridge peered down its aquiline snout at the Interwebs and said “teaching will be f2f or not at all, that is the Oxbridge way, chums”, the decision dominoed down the line of UK unis. (And we all become chum to COVID-19 in the Jaws sense of the word.)

Faculty at every uni across the UK (and much of the US) have thus spent the last three months NOT preparing for online-only teaching. They have been in committees, trying to figure out how to make f2f + COVID-safe social distancing and masks work. How do you lecture with a triple-layer cloth or N95 mask on your gob? How do you run seminars if only three people can be in that seminar room at a time? How do you conduct anatomy and chemistry and zoology labs if you can’t come within two metres of one another? How do we fill those expensive residence halls if we can’t actually fill the residence halls? What about students or staff who are shielding — how does that work when we are insisting on f2f? And what about all the procedures that will have to be in place to handle it when — WHEN, absolutely NOT if, shouts Cassandra — an outbreak occurs?

Those who aren’t mired in the committees are doing what they’ve been told. They’ve been developing their online materials since May, between Zoom conferences and Teams confabs. Only gradually the message trickled down:

You also need to prepare to teach f2f (hahahaha, we’re not exactly sure WHAT elements of teaching HAVE to be f2f, but you got to have something, k?) AND online. Oh, and be ready at any moment to shift all your f2f stuff online. Oh, and even if f2f is going on, there will be students who can opt out of f2f teaching, so you’re going to be doing their stuff online-only at the same time as f2f. Also, you have to observe all the PPE and COVID-safety precautions in your teaching, and there aren’t enough rooms for the space requirement, so your typical load of ten contact hours a week is now 37. What, that’s ALL of your time in f2f scenarios with no room even for pee breaks? Come on, think of all that this uni has done for you! It has… it has… Well, it has given you pay that does not keep up with inflation, a misogynist imbalance of work amongst staff, no recognition of the great work you already do, shitty management because no uni trains management and every uni fails the spectacularly incompetent upward, more and more work for your pay every year as we defund pastoral and admin support centres (thanks again, conservative austerity knobheads!), and even if you don’t drop dead from stress-related heart disease and you get to retire, we’re gleefully robbing your pensions! Do it for your uni!

Lest you accuse me of having forgotten about international and non-traditional students here, I have not. For years now, HE has cozied up to international students to milk them for bloated tuition fees. Now they’re giving the two-finger salute to students who may not be able to cross national quarantine lines, who don’t want to risk it, or who don’t want to possibly become trapped in a country that isn’t their own with shaky visas if (when) the shit goes down (again). Other students may not be in halls — they might travel in by public transport, in some cases poor and unreliable public transport (what’s that, you say? British transport is not uh-mazing? How could Parliament possibly see that from the backseats of their chauffeur-driven Rolls?) for their “required” f2f element only to discover it’s a non-specific tutorial (where, let’s face it, a lecturer sits in a room and waits to see if anyone with questions turns up. Which they don’t). That’s a lot of travel and a lot of COVID risk for the “make something on your course f2f but also ensure all learning outcomes are capable of being met without any f2f teaching” requirement uni management tiers are requiring. And what about that public transport? Most unis are in metro areas. Students swell public transport loads, and that’s a massive hotspot for disease transmission. Is it worth it? (The answer is no. No it is not.)

What to expect when your expectations are that someday someone might tell you what to expect

Let’s also compare the first message to staff and students back in May (“we will not be returning to f2f classes, prepare yourselves accordingly”) with the one mewled out starting in July-ish:

We will have some f2f element, not sure what it is, you can decide, but all your learning outcomes must be earnable through online-only attendance, we don’t know how classrooms will work yet, or if staff who are shielding or don’t want to risk COVID will be allowed to protect their own lives, but students who don’t want to come don’t have to, so we need online-only education for them, but also benefits for students who do come to campus because we are requiring everyone to return to campus for some totally essential and not at all lip-service f2f education, and when an outbreak occurs we’ll have some procedures in place, no we aren’t sure yet what they’ll be, or even actually how we can physically do all this given that for years we have been chronically underfunding academic and support staff and resources (but shiny residence halls!)…

That’s the message to staff and students. No one knows what is happening. No one knows what to expect. And thus everyone expects something different. The students expect their full university experience — otherwise, what’s the point? UNC students didn’t expect only five days of that uni experience, and then to be sent back home once their tuition and living expenses checks had cleared. The staff know how impossible it is, but also know that, given the situation, redundancies are coming, and in THIS economy no one can afford to be out of a job (thanks again, neoliberal conservative austerity bullshit shovelers!), especially without even the hope of a functioning welfare system and universal basic income system that countries run by actual human beings (even infamously broke Spain!) have managed to introduce.

Cassandra says: Faculty will kill themselves trying to enact what management has tasked them. They’ll teach a soul-destroying hybrid of f2f+online/online-only for one, maybe two weeks, all the while soothing student anxieties and answering the infinite number of questions such chaos is going to prompt. And then. Then University of North Carolina is going to happen. Whoops! We forgot university students lick each other, and we have ourselves a COVID-19 outbreak! Party’s over, folks. You do have to go home, and you definitely can’t stay here. Except the international students now caught in a quarantine, who both have to stay here and go home.

Image of Will Ferrell in Elf, smiling maniacally, captioned “Can I lick you?”

Then faculty will once again kill themselves (I wish I were exaggerating, but I had multiple colleagues spiral into health nightmares thanks to the old it’s-only-broken-not-scattered system, let alone this exponentially added COVID-laced weight) to swap over to online-only teaching, dealing with the chaos of students returning home, not having suitable learning equipment or environments, stress over assessments, stress over life, with the additional issue of the students now HATE and RESENT the university for doing this to them.

You think it’s going to just be the universities’ legal departments that are going to suffer from this, as student after student after student files lawsuits and complaints (particularly if any of them, you know, get COVID and suffer its mortality rate)? No. It’s the front lines. It’s their lecturers, their advisors, their supervisors. We’re going to get the hate and the bile. We’re not on hazard pay. We’re barely on pay, particularly precarious staff. And HE is using us, once again, as human shields.

Cartoon of army platoon with black soldiers in the front, captioned “Operation human shield will suffer heavy losses”
There are multiple levels to this one.

HE Exec Boards love opportunities. They love the sound they make as they go whooshing by.

First, HE should have stuck to its initial, logical, socially-responsible guns: f2f never should have been on the table. There is NOTHING wrong with keeping a generation of students and staff safe from the most deadly pandemic of the century. But once that least flexible of inflexible institutions, Oxbridge, indicated its intent to stiff upper lip this bitch, everyone folded like yer mam’s laundry. You can’t bluff a freaking VIRUS. Oxbridge and many Russell Group HEIs (not all, of course) can weather the disaster. Their incestuous relationship with Parliament will make sure of it, same as the bankers did. Everyone else is merely peasants, and isn’t it too bad what happened to them?

Portrait of Rowan Atkinson as Elizabethan Blackadder captioned “Peasants, peasants everywhere”

At this point, HE has wasted millions of person-hours as academic and support staff scramble to fulfil management’s vague and reactive f2f requirements. They’ve also wasted the good will of that staff, many of whom might have plunged excitedly into the pedagogical and professional challenge of converting to online teaching and services (we like using our brains and responding to challenges. It’s why we’re academics).

In fact, there’s not a damn thing wrong with online-only education, or distance education. It’s used in thousands of programmes worldwide, from Australia’s School of the Air to our own Open University, which has been a functioning equal in UK HE for decades. No one has to invent the wheel here (despite the fact that in May, pretty much everyone did — no judgment, it was a panicky time).

Furthermore, this was/is an opportunity to revise and re-envision antiquated and increasingly ineffective teaching approaches throughout the sector. Lectures? LECTURES? They, for lack of a more pedagogically erudite term, SUCK. Mid-terms and finals — hell, exams full stop? These are the pedagogical equivalents of the horse and carriage. We are institutions of research and knowledge, and we do, in fact, know better now. We don’t have to keep doing things the way they (read: white, socioeconomically privileged men) did in the 1950s (I’m looking at you, Iowa creative writing workshop model, you racist, sexist, elitist prig).

Image of the “6 Million Dollar Man” (TV show) captioned “We have the technology”

We have flipped classrooms. Radically flipped classrooms. Specifications grading. Student-directed learning. Platform-based courses. Citizen science. Think-tank modules. Self-designed assessments. Alternative universities.

But no one uses them. Because we’re too tired from too many contact hours. Too exhausted trying to make sure our students love us so they’ll boost our NSS scores. Too worn out writing grant applications when we should be sleeping, or attending meetings that could have been text messages or counselling suicidal students because central services kicked them back out of the system after three sessions where they didn’t actively try to harm themselves. Or visiting fellow staff members in hospital because they sacrificed their health for their jobs.

This was our opportunity. We’ve been crunching around in the broken pieces of HE for years, and COVID swept them away. We could have started with fresh ideas. Entered the 21st century. Reframed university to meet the needs of all students, not just the able, white, upper class males it was designed for in the 1940s. Or at least tried.

WE STILL CAN. Universities, look at America and be warned. Don’t do what our solipsistic PM did when COVID emerged (ignore it to filth); take these instances as omens for your own future.

Value your staff first and foremost. Value their input, their labour, their expertise, and their abilities. They can DO this. They can take programmes and light them on FIYAH. If you allow it. If you value it. It’s not too late to start.

If the staff are on board, the students will get on board. Academic staff, admin staff — we’re the ones students see and work with every day. They were on our side in the strikes. They’re on our side now. But you have to treat them like living, breathing, thinking human beings too, and not just cash register pings. They are scared to come back, and your wishy washy messages aren’t helping. We can make this a valuable experience for them if you listen to us. Break the Cassandra cycle.

Cancel f2f. Enable experimental (which aren’t that experimental, it’s just that they aren’t “mainstream”) distance pedagogical techniques. You’re supposed to be smart. So come up with innovative solutions. Oxbridge has their noses too far up their backsides to do it, and they don’t have to. YOU DO.

Never start a sentence with “but”

“But if we do something different, we’ll lose our students.”

Everyone is going to lose students. We know this. Accept it. At the moment, everyone is losing them at the same rate, because everyone, per usual, is doing the exact same thing. Do something different, and maybe you could lose fewer students. Be bold, and confirm that all your programmes are going to be online for 2020–21. Those scared students getting confusing messages from their institutions? They’ll come to you. International students, disabled students, non-traditional students who don’t think they can do the f2f elements this year? You’ll get some of them. Students who weren’t even on the cards yesterday — continuing ed, people on furlough, people without sports teams and pubs and recreational travel — they might choose this year to take on some classes, maybe even a degree, if it’s flexible enough for them.

“But the worry is that it’s not just this year, it’s for the next three years.”

Yep. And it’s only going to get worse if you stick to the f2f track and piss off your students (see again: UNC). On the other hand, you could be bold and clear this year, with a smart, responsible plan in place. Students who get shafted by f2f shenanigans this year will want something different next year. Open up to transfer students.

“But the residence halls! We need that income.”

“But some students can’t study at home.”

This one’s a twofer. There are certainly students who can’t study at home. We definitely know that now. They don’t have the home life to permit it, maybe don’t have the equipment. They’re going to be a minority proportion of students. So open the halls to them, with all COVID safety measures in place, and let them do online study from there with reliable wifi and utilities. You’ll have postgraduate students in the same boat, so you still have wardens to ensure responsible living.

Push it a little further, and universities could set up residence halls exchanges. Manchester students attending online programmes in London can lease halls in Manchester, and vice versa. Residence halls can be more than one thing. They can be little bubbled communities — communities of students who value the service you’re providing. Heck, some staff might even make use of them on shorter-term bases, in order to get work done away from their own families and children in home situations not designed for everyone to be in the same space doing different things.

“But we still won’t have enough students; we were already struggling with income.”

Too right. First, don’t gut your staff and bilk your students. You need us. UK unis really like to have aristocracy as chancellors. Have your chancellors pressure their school buddies in government to help students and unis out at least as much as they’re helping their banker and hedge fund buddies. Maybe get them to actually tax Amazon and Google and all the other massive corporate tax dodgers in order to properly fund education — the future — again.

Shorter term, with online and asynchronous material you can expand to markets you hadn’t been able to reach before. Continuing and part-time education in the UK is pitiful. If you’re a full-time worker and you want a degree, what do you do? Open Uni, maybe. No one else cares about you. Evening programmes are limited to the big cities. I’ve been in curriculum development meetings where no one cared to include part-time learners.

Y’all, 600 books were published in one day this week. Because people in the era of COVID-19 are bored. At home. With computers and pub money. Give them a course on Arthurian legends in Wales and Cornwall, on the science of plagues, on any topic from the Discovery or the History channels. You don’t have to give them degrees. Give them the asynchronous content for (much less than FT tuition) fees. It’s passive income, and it can float you.

“But if we take everything to online, asynchronous content, isn’t that bad for staff? Why would we need a lecturer for more than the first instance of a course?”

First of all, this question is only asked by those who have no gorram clue what modern lecturers actually do. We are not just content-delivery monkeys (despite how you pay precarious staff). Online programming doesn’t mean no teaching or research (or Open Uni would be Skynet by this point). We still need lecturers to design the materials, choose readings/viewings, respond to questions, facilitate discussion, assign work, assess work, give feedback, pastoral support, career advice. There is just no reason why all this HAS to be in person, and no unmoderated online course can replace all these things.

And that’s just teaching. I mean, we’re supposed to be doing research, yeah? With online-focused teaching, you can cut some facilities costs. Sure, we still need some facilities, particularly for those subjects that need labs and testing rooms and equipment and the like. But permanent offices for every member of staff? How much have those places cost you for the last three months? Cut them loose, and keep some (or use residence halls) for bookable, rotatable office space. Because, as noted, some staff can’t work from home 100%. On the other hand, some can, and would prefer it. Save facilities costs there.

We also still have to support students. They still need financial advisors, counsellors, disability support, career support. Researchers still need grant advice and management. We all still need librarians and IT and HR and occupational health. I doubt we really need management much, but much like that ugly corn on my little toe, I don’t think we’re going to be lucky enough to get rid of it anytime soon.

“But the students say they WANT f2f!”

Of course they do. Returning students want their uni experience to continue. New students want the uni experience they’ve heard of from parents, siblings, on film and TV. Here’s the thing:


That’s the pre-COVID uni experience. It’s not available anymore; it may be available again, in the future, but not right now. Right now they’re going to get extremely limited contact, social distancing, lockdowns, no meet-ups, no parties. All those things they want when they say “uni experience”? Pushing all this f2f hybrid stuff still isn’t going to give it to them.

Yet promising to do that (in their minds, because of expectations you’ve set) WILL BACKFIRE. They will arrive and be angry that they have taken loans out for halls to get the post-COVID uni experience.

As humans we are satisfied NOT when we get what we want, but when we get what we expect. Stop letting them expect to get a pre-COVID experience when you can’t possibly deliver. Create a post-COVID experience that is SAFE, and does the best it possibly can given the circumstances. Set those expectations.

“But students don’t value online-only education; they won’t pay the tuition if there’s not f2f.”

Students aren’t valuing online-only education because — wait for it — YOU aren’t valuing it. By saying “we’ll give you your £9k worth by forcing f2f!”, you’re telling them online-only is second tier. YOU are setting up those expectations, that f2f is going to be so much more than online programming.

Except you can’t possibly deliver on that promise. UNC couldn’t, and you won’t be able to either. Students are taking your f2f message and expecting their full £9k pre-COVID experience. When they show up on campus and they can’t gather in groups for student societies, or have actual classes in person (because lecturers aren’t morons, and they’ll make the f2f elements those lonely tutorials), and then have to go home to online-only education after only a couple of weeks because of COVID, not only will you have set false expectations and failed to meet them, you will have caused them hardship, confusion, and possibly their health.


Again, it seems I must remind you that we are supposed to be where all the smart people live and work. We shouldn’t be this stupid. We TEACH communication and media strategies (despite the fact that the last uni-organised communication training I attended was given by a free-at-the-point-of-service faculty member who knew some stuff about psychology, and not a whit about effective communication). Let’s use some, shall we?

Manage expectations. That clear message that unis would be online-only in 2020? Go back to that. It wasn’t ideal, but it was clear, responsible, and authoritative. Let the Tory government fall on their faces U-turning on A-level grades. Be their sensible alternative, a port in the storm of uncertainty. Use these early American omens as a valid reason to go back to online-only.

Build expectations. HE management and IT don’t seem aware of this, but online teaching isn’t just recorded lectures and a Zoom seminar. It shouldn’t be. Online teaching can be flexible, accessible, asynchronous, student-led, exciting, and dynamic. Know this (i.e., LISTEN TO YOUR TEACHING STAFF — not just some mid-management brown-noser failing up the ladder). Know what it can be, then take your league-table banner boasting budget and market the hell out of your SAFE, flexible, accessible online programmes taught and supported by your SAFE, happy, not-killing-themselves-figuratively-or-literally academic and professional staff.

Expand expectations. Students still won’t be getting their societies, halls, or shared hangovers. How do you replace that with online learning? I dunno, maybe look at how we’ve done it collectively over the last few months? Sponsor guilds in online role-playing games, set up Discord servers, use HouseParty and Netflix group viewing apps. Create at-home physical activity things they can do together (that YouTube guy who did PE for the lockdown was rad, yeah?), online pub quizzes, stich’n’bitch circles. You don’t know what those are? LEARN!

And then if things become safe to return to f2f, you’ve got this amazing community both online and offline, and you look BOSS for what you did.

Get flexible with tuition. Right now your only model for tuition is “pay by degree”. E’rbody pays £27k for an undergraduate degree in the UK. Want to take just a class from your local uni? No. Want to do some continuing ed for work? No. Retired and want to take some evening classes to liven things up? No.

So £9k/year is the max — for that you get all that and a bag of Bachelor’s degree potato chips (and I would suggest a basic laptop for every student). But maybe £3k/year gets a student access to a programme, but no assessed work (and thus no degree). Maybe £500 gets a student full audit access to a single module. Maybe £100 gets access to online, asynchronous materials, without contact or interaction. Maybe there are a few free module “loss leaders”, and some straightforward foundation level programmes that can get continuing ed folks and non-traditional students more up to HE speed, and they transition to UG later.

And in all of this, TELL the students what they’re paying for (or, really, will be paying for, via loans). Itemise it. Show them that 35%* of their tuition goes to their lecturers, and 15% to the professional staff supporting lecturers and students. That 10% goes to library resources and 10% lab supplies, 20% reinvested in facilities. Right now they think they’re paying for their butts to collect knowledge in classrooms, because your “bums on seats” approach to HE tells them that. Change the message. *Numbers pulled magically out of my bum and not intended to reflect reality.

Cassandra has been foreseeing the future and summarily disbelieved for 25 centuries. Knock it off. Stop recreating the university of the ’50s, and start creating education opportunities. Come up with ideas rather than stop-gaps. Aim for Neo, instead of endlessly torturing us with your Agent Smith impression, because this is an infinity-level simulacrum that I do NOT want to decay in.

Screenshot from “The Matrix”, with (villain) Agent Smith aiming a gun at (hero) Neo.
Agent Smith just wants us to all lie still so the matrix can EAT us.

If even ONE PERSON dies because of the decisions you are making right now, it is too much. The consequences of your current actions are not financial dips or a drop in the league tables. They are DEATHS. And you will be accountable for them.

P.S. This essay comes from one academic based on limited conversations with only a few colleagues. Imagine what we could do with a collaborative, cogent, focused effort.



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Lyle Skains

Lyle Skains

Writer/researcher in digital writing, interactive narrative, & digital publishing. Hoping for the United Federation of Planets; worried we’re doomed to the 100.