COVID-19 and Higher Education

We posed the following questions to individuals across the higher education sector: 

  • Will moving to on-line communication increase the possibilities of unwanted surveillance?  

  • Will on-line teaching become a more permanent and far-reaching feature of higher education and what would that mean?  What about academic freedom?  

  • International research communication?  

The following are responses we've received. This is an ongoing conversation. Please contact us if you would like to contribute:

Joy Connolly, President, American Council of Learned Societies


Three thoughts are weighing on me.  First, the switch to online teaching last week was an emergency measure, carried out at the university level by deans and provosts with good intentions, for the most part with little or no meaningful faculty input or debate.  This was a big step in the decades-long systems decay of faculty governance — this time over the historically sacrosanct area of faculty control over curriculum. How are we all defining success? As we start to prepare for the fall, how will faculty and administrators assess next steps?     


Second, the new online landscape is shaping up to be a gig economy. Where do full-time jobs fit in?  


Third, thinking of the classroom in particular and the college in general as a site of intellectual, political, social, and personal change and evolution, how will faculty be able to model styles of life and thought in real time, not as custodians or arbiters or moderators of knowledge but as human beings that students come to know and take seriously as pursuing alternative ways of being in the world?  I’ve often thought that the most useful minutes I’ve spent in classrooms both as a student and as a teacher are the ten minutes before and after the “official” class -- those moments when student and teacher connect as human beings. 


Catherine Rottenberg, University of Nottingham; Neve Gordon, Queen Mary University of London

UK Universities in Time of Corona: Will the Experiment Succeed?

When the coronavirus hit, 74 universities in the UK were in the midst of a historic 14-day strike whose goal was to protect our pensions, decrease our workload, push back against the casualization of labor, and demand an end to the gender and race pay gap. In a show of unity—unlikely to occur in the US—permanent faculty stood together with their fixed term colleagues (adjunct professors) on the picket line, protesting the marketization of the universities and the incessant imposition of corporate managerial models into academic life.

During this latest wave of industrial action, we learned that Catherine’s teaching assistant in her American Literature Survey course was being outsourced to a temp agency. Because the PhD student is employed by UniTemps and not the university, he could not strike. While we have spent years fighting for the insourcing of cleaning staff and other service providers, and are thus well acquainted with the endless push to streamline institutional costs at the expense of vulnerable populations, the discovery that academic labor was being outsourced to temp agencies still came as a shock. It was yet another indication that UK universities—25% of which are in deficit due to an unsustainable funding model—are at the forefront of the global neoliberalization of higher education.

Indeed, even before the corona pandemic, UK universities were already pressuring faculty to “lecture capture”; namely, to record lectures and make them available to students. In many classrooms, “capture” is now the default and, if you prefer not to be recorded, you have to actively opt out. The argument is that this will enable students—and particularly those with learning disabilities—to hear the lectures more than once. 


There is little doubt in our mind that the universal transition to on-line teaching precipitated by corona will serve as an experiment that is likely to have a dramatic and devastating impact on higher education, particularly in light of the looming economic crisis. Whether the changes will be carried out via a Chilean-style shock doctrine approach once the pandemic is contained or (more likely) integrated in a gradual fashion, we suspect that the outcome of this experiment will lead to the end of academia as we have known it.

Corporate managers—particularly those working in deficit struck universities—may already be thinking that distance learning is the way to go. Class recordings will enable them to reduce the number of permanent positions, while those who mark student essays and exams can be hired through temp agencies. With the possible exception of a group of elite universities  whose social, cultural and financial capital sets them apart, over time, more and more courses will likely be purchased from vendors, while the few remaining permanent faculty members will then be asked to focus on assessing and evaluating the “products” sold to students. Moreover, with fewer students on site, some universities might also decide to sell their lucrative real estate, allowing those located in central London, for example—University College of London, SOAS, Birkbeck, King’s and the London School of Economics—to reap substantial profits.

This, to be sure, is a dystopian prediction. But without active resistance on the part of faculty, it will become a reality. For those of us who still believe that intellectual pursuits are worthy in and of themselves and that classroom settings—whether discussion groups or even lectures—are unique sites of learning, where people get together to discuss ideas and cultivate critical thinking, a future of virtual learning, motivated by market factors and assessed by market metrics, is a very frightening prospect. One way of rendering this future less likely is by ensuring that the current experiment, however practical it may seem during the current crisis, does not succeed in the longer term .   

Robert Post, Sterling Professor of Law, Yale Law School


Some (Speculative) Consequences of the Coronavirus

The sudden brutal switch to online learning is the most obvious consequence for higher education of the pandemic. Everyone now accepts online teaching because everyone regards it as necessary to reduce serious health hazards. But after the pandemic recedes, it is likely economic forces will seek to keep online learning in place, because it is far cheaper than education before the pandemic.

We should acknowledge that online learning is an effective and efficient medium for the transmission of information. But the goal of higher education is far greater than this. Its mission is to inspire in undergraduates a mature independence of mind. Of course a mature mind is well-stocked, so the acquisition of information is essential. But it is not sufficient. Students must also be empowered critically to assess and use the information they have acquired. This involves not merely standards of thought, but also dimensions of character. Students must learn to suppress the urgent desire for wish-fulfillment and to exercise the virtues of rigor and intellectual self-discipline. This involves internalizing the practice of mature critical self-reflection.  Humans only learn such practices when they are motivated to watch and imitate others. This requires the human magic of cathexis, which is the essence of mentorship, and which thrives only in face-to-face relationships.

If during their late adolescence students are not encouraged to identify with those whose goal is to teach them practices of rigor and self-discipline, they are more likely eventually to identify with those whose goal is produce gratification. A long-term consequence of the pandemic may thus be the undermining of democracy. We have long known that democracy requires a flourishing educational sector.  But when higher education is pushed into a virtual mode, it may produce a demos that possesses information but that is more inclined to fantasy and less able to learn from experience. We all know where that can lead. We’ve seen it before; we’re seeing it now.

All the more reason, therefore, to push back hard against those will try to transform these emergency conditions into a new status quo for higher education.

This Dear Colleague letter was circulated at UCLA from the faculty senate and Executive Vice Chancelor. It includes important statements regarding the pandemic. 

Dear Colleagues:

We wanted to write to express our deep appreciation for the incredible efforts that you are making to support our students and maintain academic continuity under these trying circumstances. We recognize that everyone on campus — faculty, staff, and students — is navigating a public health crisis that is causing significant temporary changes in both daily life and campus practices. It is important in such circumstances that we take care of ourselves and each other as we navigate this temporary crisis.

But we also wanted to reassure you of our deep and ongoing commitment to UCLA as an in-person, residential research university. Although we are moving to remote instruction to help secure the health of the university, this is a temporary response to an immediate crisis. UCLA has a long tradition of bringing faculty and students together to pursue knowledge in classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and museums; to encourage the arts in performance spaces and studios; and to discover and disseminate new knowledge and techniques in clinics and hospitals. Moreover, we believe firmly that the residential setting allows for the informal creativity and sharing of ideas and arguments that help students, researchers, staff, and faculty thrive intellectually and personally.

We want to make one final point. UCLA faculty and staff have, for many years, been involved in exploring the possibilities of online teaching and learning. As those who have participated know, successfully mounting online courses takes a tremendous amount of labor, thought, and time. Our current online classes also have undergone rigorous Academic Senate review. Although we do not doubt the tremendous creativity of our faculty and graduate students, we want to assure everyone that we know that the remote courses that you will be offering this spring are not truly “online courses.” No one can expect you to master all of the various technologies, suddenly transition to sophisticated document delivery, or skillfully lead 500 people in a Zoom discussion without appropriate preparation. We are asking that you do your best in thinking of ways to offer your students your course materials in alternative modes under trying circumstances for all.

The campus has been working hard to provide you with support as you move your classes into remote modes. Please seek out the help you need, but please remember that this situation is uncharted territory for the staff who are trying to help you to provide the best education that you can in this moment.

UCLA is a remarkable institution filled with remarkably creative and talented people. We will get through the disruption of COVID-19. When we do, we are committed to returning to the teaching and learning that has made UCLA such a distinguished educational environment.