Welcome back to the new academic year!
The almost overwhelming crisis of Covid that we have had to address and overcome for the past 18 months is finally beginning to recede.
It is a tribute to our members and the academic community that throughout the pandemic classes continued to be delivered, exams were completed and the integrity of higher education was preserved.
The effort and determination of IFUT members is something that was absolutely essential to this achievement. The daily, indeed almost 24/7 commitment to delivery of education, combined with the work and vigilance of our reps at college level, ensured that courses were fulfilled, that students’ interests were protected and that college managements understood fully the needs and perspectives of lecturers, researchers and students alike.
The importance of having a dedicated new Department of Higher Education greatly helped in this regard. The attention and consultation facilitated by Minister Harris and his officials, including regular contacts involving IFUT and the broader group of education unions through ICTU, enabled a clear process to be established at national level to address and resolve key issues around health and safety and deliver consistent, if not always uniform, responses at individual college level.
The value of co-operation and consultation at all levels and among all stakeholders in higher education has been clearly shown and proven over the past 18 months. The challenge now will be to maintain and strengthen these new bridges as we move beyond Covid.
Firstly, based on previous experience COVID-19 is likely to retain its ability to cause unexpected difficulties. We may indeed face unanticipated challenges as we return to face-to-face learning. It may now be slipping more into ‘oul’ enemy’ status and we can be more confident of responding to whatever challenges it presents in the year ahead. Yet maintaining a whole of higher education consultation process remains vital to ensure health and safety for all.
As we return to face-to-face teaching, we are not fully returning to the old normal. We must avoid the temptation to relax vigilance and maintain our determination to keep Covid out of our workplaces. Vaccination levels have indeed reached very high levels and the economy is rapidly re-opening. While we all welcome and yearn for this return to normality, IFUT will, however, continue to work assiduously to ensure national health guidelines are implemented at college level.
Secondly, the post-Covid environment will revive old questions and issues regarding funding, staffing levels and working conditions that existed pre-Covid. These problems haven’t gone away, you know!
Colleges may face additional funding gaps and financial pressures responding to Covid, both now into the future. How will these pressures be met?
Let’s not forget the thousands of additional higher education places that have been added in higher education during the past two years of Covid enrolment. They have not been accompanied by increases in staffing levels. In fact the issue of precarity and the pressures on lecturers, tutors and researchers is, if anything, more insidious now than two years ago.
As the threat and impact of Covid recedes, the road ahead is becoming that bit clearer, IFUT, both nationally, locally and though contacts with ICTU, will pursue an intensive engagement with government in the new academic year to secure both the resources and the clarity required for a continued safe, sustainable higher education system.