State-mandated closures of learning institutions have brought conventional learning to a halt in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. The need to ensure continuity of teaching and learning has propelled institutions of all levels of education to shift from brick-and-mortar classroom learning to virtual classes – but how will this affect universities at large?
BY FARISH A NOOR
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has caught many universities, polytechnics and institutions of higher learning by surprise. In a space of just a few weeks, countries all over the world began shutting their borders, restricted the arrival of foreigners and imposed lockdowns on their respective societies. All of this has had an impact on businesses and bureaucracies the world over; universities have also been greatly impacted.
The modern university today aspires to attain certain universal goals: to expose its faculty and student body to a wider international community; to encourage and promote inter-institution cooperation and collaboration; and to build an international faculty and student body that reflects the global realities of our interconnected world. In many parts of the world the evolution of the modern university has been in tandem with the process of late industrial globalisation. Consequently, the global impact of the COVID-19 crisis has also been felt at the university level.
As a result of the swathe of restrictions and controls that have been imposed by governments across the globe, many universities are now left wondering if the goal of creating such inclusive and globalised institutions are viable in the near future. This is particularly true for universities in some European and North American countries that have grown dependent of foreign students as a source of additional income. Now, with the prospect of further curbs on overseas travel looming over the horizon, there is the very real worry that student numbers will decline in a significant manner; some universities may well see a drastic drop in student enrolment for the next academic year. This does not bode well for the financial health of such institutions and the career prospects of their academic staff.
Even the “new normal” has its silver lining
Notwithstanding the challenge that faces universities all over the world today – notably the problem of maintaining student numbers – in terms of teaching praxis, the COVID-19 crisis has significantly altered the manner in which teaching is conducted and the relationship between teachers and students in particular. At present (May 2020), face-to-face teaching has been stopped in many universities in Asia and Europe, forcing lecturers to opt for social media platforms, such as Zoom, Messenger, Microsoft Teams and so on. Different platforms have different capabilities and some may be better suited for classes with student numbers around 10 to 30. However, for all intents and purposes, it would be futile to use these platforms for large lectures that involve hundreds of students.
The same platforms have, however, allowed lecturers like myself to maintain contact with their students on a regular basis and come to replace the conventional lecturer-student consultation that used to take place in the confines of the lecturer’s office. One advantage of this new mode of communication is that it has allowed lecturers to have more flexible consultation hours and has made it easier for students to approach their lecturers – who previously were only available on campus at set times and dates.
Another advantage of such platforms is that they allow lecturers, like myself, to conduct pastoral care in the form of both formal and informal meetings, discussions and consultations with students who may themselves be feeling the pressure of lockdowns and consequently have other worries on their minds. In my own case, almost half of my students happen to be foreigners who have left their homes and families and are now unable to go back home due to air travel restrictions. Confined as they are in their dormitories and told that they should not engage in group activities, such as cooking and eating together in the campus halls, loneliness and isolation have become real issues to be addressed and dealt with. Here is where social media has proven to be invaluable to lecturers who are concerned for their students’ mental health and well-being. Through various social media platforms, I have been able to conduct not only classes online, but also organise informal gatherings, such as having virtual dinners together with students. The fact that their lecturers are now there for them to reach out to means that individual foreign students no longer feel as isolated as before. This has actually improved rapport between the teaching staff and the student body. Ironically, it took a crisis like this one to facilitate better, more regular contact between staff and students. In my own case, I have resolved to maintain this form of regular virtual contact even after the lockdown has been lifted and the crisis is over.
The post-COVID university of the near future
Though many hope that the present crisis will abate in a few months, analysts have warned that in the future the possibility of a similar crisis, or worse, cannot be discounted. The global communicative architecture that has been created – which brings together cheap and fast cross-boundary travel, mass movement, urbanisation, reliance on cheap foreign labour, and so on – all point to the possibility of yet another pandemic in the years to come.
The university of today will have to adapt and prepare for such contingencies in the same way that governments have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. In the global age that we live in which competitiveness is linked to success and prominence, universities will have to think of new ways to maintain and possibly increase student numbers as well as the intake of foreign students in such challenging times. This is due to the fact that the diversity of the student body as well as the intake of foreign staff and students count as factors that determine university rankings. How is this to be done if students are less able to move around the globe and study overseas?
One of the takeaway points we have learned from this crisis is that the functionality of a university does not depend on how large or beautiful its campus is, but on how well it has laid out its communication architecture. The universities that have come out at the top are the ones that were best prepared to make the rapid switch from face-to-face teaching to online teaching and virtual classes/lectures – although this is easier for the humanities and less so for the hard sciences, which still require labs and facilities on site. In the decades to come we may well see more and more universities opting for such an approach, with more capital being invested into online resources and platforms of communication that are efficient and secure.
Consequently, the traditional view of universities as large complexes of learning – dotted with huge auditoriums, lecture halls, conference centres and crowded with students – may give way to sleeker, more streamlined and less cumbersome institutions that allow for flexibility in teaching and learning. This may also include the virtual enrolment of foreign students who may not have to physically travel abroad to a foreign university and instead undergo the entire degree virtually in their home countries.
Universities can and should also cut down on large conferences that bring together scholars when all of that can be done virtually. This will also reduce carbon emissions as fewer people need to travel thousands of miles away only to present a paper in a space of thirty minutes. Over the past few months, I have virtually attended several conferences overseas online – this was less taxing on my body and the environment too. As a result, I have resolved not to fly overseas for conferences any longer as such travel has proven to be patently unnecessary.
Should such changes take place, the traditionalists among us need not worry too much about the fate of the university now and in the future. After all, universities are fundamentally places of learning and research, and such work takes place in the domain of the mind. Should the universities of the future grow increasingly minimalist in size and appearance, this only reminds us of the fact that what makes a university a place of genuine learning is the spirit of enquiry and research, which is cultivated by the teacher-student relationship first and foremost – and the buildings in and around the universities are merely the structural accoutrements to what is, in the final analysis, a mental endeavour.
Farish A Noor is Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the School of History (SoH), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore