At the start of a New Year let’s hope our families, students and friends can stay healthy and well.
For many of us the arrival of 2021 may have seemed more like Groundhog Day, with yet another wave of Covid infection, a third lockdown and a continuing uncertainty on what the future might bring.
It brings to mind the key catchphrase way back at the start of Covid-19 - ‘we’re all in this together’?
For some reason we’re not hearing that phrase much anymore. It’s not that the threats posed by Covid-19 have gone away. Indeed the challenges as we enter 2021 remain and are indeed ever changing.
The difference now is that, with the arrival of vaccines, there are the first signs of light at the end of a seemingly never-ending Covid tunnel. Before long, it is hoped in many quarters, normal service will resume.
The end of this devastating pandemic will be very good news indeed. But it must be accompanied by a learning and remembering of the lessons of the past year. And an acknowledgement that all stakeholders in higher education deserve and require to be heard.
The return to ‘normality’ after the 2008 economic crash involved devastation for higher education at many levels. Lecturers’ numbers were slashed, salaries frozen and precarious employment promoted, while staff to student ratios deteriorated to among the very worst levels in the OECD. The commitment and sacrifices of those that kept higher education afloat during the crash - including lecturers, researchers and librarians - were simply not part of the planning and funding equation in the years that followed.
The landscape for higher education post-Covid may also look significantly different. As of yet we don’t know exactly what shape it will take.
The new world of ‘zoom’ offers some huge potential. It could, for instance, relieve lecturers of the need to undertake a long daily commute, to be replaced by less frequent journeys to campus to deliver certain lectures, practicals or tutorials, meet students directly and do other essential face-to-face work.
It could also greatly benefit students, particularly those who attend college far from home, by, for instance, easing the burden of huge accommodation costs.
But there is also a significant risk that planning for and creation of this new landscape will seek to retain and embed many of the extraordinary and emergency work practices and initiatives that those at the coalface delivered during 2020 to keep higher education afloat.
How might a potential future combination of on-line and face-to-face education operate? How much pressure to deliver extra hours will it entail? How will the drift to a 24/7 ‘always available’ working environment be reversed or dealt with? Will precarious working be yet further enshrined? How will research and researchers be impacted and supported?
The height of the pandemic was accompanied by a high level of consultation by the new Minister and Department for Higher Education and universities at both national and local administration level with staff representative bodies.
It is essential that the experience, voice and concerns of IFUT members continues to be heard as decisions on the future working of higher education are being made at university and government level.
At one level, the new Department must receive adequate Exchequer funding to assist higher education address the impact of Covid-19 and recover from the long ignored impact of the earlier economic recession. It must not revert to being a foundling child for funding purposes.
At university level, the work of our members in successfully delivering course completion and exams in emergency conditions must continue to be acknowledged and any new approaches to planning and delivery of higher education must be fully consulted, agreed and funded.
IFUT will work actively with all stakeholders to support any initiatives in this regard.
Most importantly, the message that ‘we’re all in this together’ must not be conveniently forgotten now that an end to the worst of the crisis is at least in sight. Instead it must be kept firmly as the central facet of how our higher education community moves forward and thrives in the still challenging years ahead.