Universities after Covid

Our outgoing Vice-President for Resources & Treasurer, Orla Feely (Vice President for Research, Innovation & Impact at University College Dublin), reflects on what we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic for higher education and research and considers the elements that we will take forward.
17th November 2021
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When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in Spring 2020, the world of higher education and research was instantly transformed. Digital migrations that had been talked about for years happened overnight. Many researchers pivoted their research to address the challenges of the pandemic, and all worked to advance their research in the absence of elements that were normally considered essential. Campuses were almost empty. The international travel that is such a mainstay of academic life came to a halt. Personal circumstances intruded on the professional, and vice versa, in new and inescapable ways.

Through all this, the sector and those who work within it moved with agility and responsiveness, based on a strong commitment to serve society at this time of great need.

As we now look with hope to a time after the pandemic, it is time to reflect on what we have learned through this extraordinary time for higher education and research and to consider the elements that we will take forward.

We have learned about the importance of our campuses in bringing people together. One of the many dispiriting aspects of the pandemic was to witness our wonderful University College Dublin campus emptied of the people who bring it to life. When on-campus teaching resumed in September there was a real sense of exuberance. Our students told us how much they had missed face-to-face teaching, the engagement with classmates and the many broader activities that make up a campus education. Researchers, faculty and staff spoke of how they had missed the sense of community, the serendipitous campus conversations, and the spark that is fostered through personal interactions.

At the same time, it has also become clear how our spaces can be extended in very powerful ways through the use of digital technologies. The ability to perform some work remotely can reduce the time and energy demands of commuting and support a better work-life balance. We have greatly extended the audience that we can reach through courses and events delivered digitally, and changing patterns of working and living created a new appetite for these. We can meet internationally without leaving our desks.

Something that those of us in higher education did not need to learn, but that became more apparent to broader society, was the essential nature of research and of expertise. The scientific breakthroughs that enable us to see a way through and past the pandemic are the result of basic and applied research conducted over many years. Countries relied on academic expertise to guide public health decisions, advance clinical practice, develop technological and other responses to the pandemic and inform the public.

We also learned more about our organisations as communities of people. We witnessed the importance of communication and compassion, and of leadership.

Considering all of this, and looking forward to a time when the immediacy of the pandemic has passed, there are a number of big questions for institutions of higher education and research.

How do we derive the benefits of place but also those of remote engagement? How much remote working is the right amount for organisations such as ours? How do we support the development needs of our students and staff following their different individual experiences of the pandemic? How much international academic travel should resume, reconciling sustainability and work-life balance drivers with the need for the creativity that can spring from personal connections? How do we respond to changing public views and expectations of research? What opportunities can we identify for our sector in changing patterns of working and living across broader society?

Universities around the world will be grappling with these questions and others, and will respond in different ways. Innovative solutions will be found by some that will significantly advance their ability to deliver on their missions.

Through sharing experiences and learning from one another we can enhance our ability to come up with great solutions. One of the major benefits of CESAER is the way in which it supports that collegial sharing of experience across creative and high-performing institutions. I look forward to working with colleagues across CESAER and to sharing our collective wisdom at this time of disruption and opportunity.

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