Back when I was an academic I often joked about writing an article called ‘Where is the humanity in the humanities?’. Some of the behaviour of fellow humanities scholars towards their peers, and particularly students, made me wince. Junior academics were dismissed, ignored and even deliberately made to feel embarrassed (especially at conferences) while students were often seen as an inconvenience at best.
That article still sits on my shelf of ideas but I’ve been thinking about it a lot in recent weeks as I’ve watched the higher education sector respond to the Covid-19 crisis. It’s difficult to underestimate just what a shock to the system this has been for universities but how leaders respond under pressure and how they care for their communities in an emergency is surely the greatest test of their priorities and their values. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
Let’s start by accentuating the positive. There is no doubt that universities have made immensely valuable contributions locally, nationally and globally to the Covid-19 response and it was no surprise to find these rightly highlighted by Alistair Jarvis in a piece for WonkHE. Likewise, the vast majority of institutions who have not previously delivered online courses at scale have done a pretty remarkable job putting in place emergency arrangements to provide as much continuity for students as possible. In particular, here, I think we need to pay tribute to the often unheralded tribe of learning technologists/developers who’ve done much of the heavy lifting to make this happen.
I was less impressed by the way some universities apparently decided to take a risk by keeping physical libraries open even when face-to-face teaching had already been cancelled. On 23 March, the day the UK government introduced its more stringent restrictions on movement, there were still around 60 libraries physically open across the sector. There is no doubt that this was done with the best of intentions, to support students with access to IT and resources, but to my mind there was one priority and one priority only that should have overridden all others: keeping staff and students safe.
On 23 March I joined a burgeoning group of people in petitioning universities to close their physical libraries. I was contacted privately by numerous people working in libraries in genuine distress or concerned for their colleagues who were still expected to go in when most academics and other professional services teams were now working from home. One senior librarian at a UK university pointedly suggested this was a consequence of institutional cultural hierarchy where certain categories of staff are valued more than others. To me the question was very simple: do you you want to risk library staff or students catching the virus? No? Then all physical libraries must close.
Perhaps the most egregious response by certain universities to the immediate pressures and predicted shortfall in income that will arise from a hit to international student recruitment (among other things) was the decision to lay off staff on fixed-term contracts, in some cases earlier than their original end date. The Guardian’s article which reported this was happening at Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex stirred up a lot of emotion right across the sector. But, as I and many others pointed out, this is not something that can simply be ascribed to responding to the current emergency.
I’ve seen quite a lot of people suggesting that, once the Covid-19 crisis is over (or at least under control), the last thing we need to do is to ‘return to normal’. If returning to normal means not valuing professional services staff for the immense contribution they make to the student experience or carrying on with employment practices that leave large numbers of staff struggling with the all the consequences of precarity, then I would be inclined to agree that we need a new normal. A normal that is based first and foremost on caring for those who work for and those who study at our universities. Humanity needs not only to be the defining characteristic of the humanities; it needs to be the defining characteristic of higher education culture.
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