Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You might recall that a week or so ago I’d been reflecting on a Matthew Taylor (RSA) blog about the “transition period”.

It’s a great piece that may well have lots of lessons for higher education. In it he argues that the arrangements that get put in place for an emergency are neither adequate nor legitimate for governing an extended transition. “Emergency rules for a long period of time”, he says, “would give unwarranted power to governments and could lead to a dangerous backlash”.

I’ve got a feeling this is true for universities. “Gold Command” (and control) made some sense before Easter, but as the incoming NUS Vice President effectively argued elsewhere on the site, we surely now would do well to shift from treating the pandemic and its impact on higher education as a critical problem to a wicked problem.

We should also avoid the comforting tendency to turn to treating the transition as a tame problem to be merely managed. We have plenty of people around who can count things and develop thresholds and systems and triggers and processes but deploying this stuff now sounds crass, is crass, and probably ends up solving the wrong problems at the wrong time. There are puzzles to solve. Trade offs to make. Things (and people) to notice.

Comms (still) matters too – this piece in The Conversation sums up the contrasts in approaches between New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Boris Johnson’s communications during both the “emergency” (critical) phase, and now into the wicked phase. It’s all in there – regulating distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making, persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems, and asking difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting. Again, there are lessons here for universities too.

Transition pains

The transition period will be particularly difficult (and therefore particularly wicked) for universities, I suspect, for all sorts of reasons.

Let’s imagine that there’s no formal “you can/should open” command for the sector – and that instead organisations are told to obey (and interpret) new rules that relate to three things – the numbers allowed in crowds, the social distancing of workers, and their age. And let’s also imagine that autonomous organisations like universities will be required to interpret those rules for their context.

First of all, you can see straight away how that would impact different universities differently – depending on things like how “campusy” you are, and how “efficiently” you use your buildings right now. We may well have to have some universities “closed” and some partially open in September, and even more of a split as the term develops. How unpleasant.

Next, you’ll have the immediate issue of trying to work out if students are like workers (two metres apart) or punters at the cinema/music gig (crowd size), and in which contexts those things matter. And this shouldn’t be a moment where schools, faculties and departments get to decide based on their preference or pedagogy – yet you’ll still need to devolve the detail of implementation.

You can also see how this would impact different aspects of universities differently. Lectures? Seminars? Libraries? Labs? Sports clubs? Group work? Are students allowed to go for a coffee? And who’s going to stop them if they’re not?

And you can see how all of that would impact differently for different students, different subjects, and different staff – as well as seeing how that would impact differently at different points in the term. We’ll need repeated, horrible trade offs between equality harms (both protected characteristics and wider equity between staff and students) and physical harms – potentially at multiple points in the term.

Are we really going to partially reopen campuses but have some subjects in person and some not? Some staff not on campus but some on campus? Some services open but others not? If we’re swinging in and out of social distancing, we’re expecting students to do what, exactly – turn up at the drop of a hat and then self-isolate in their tiny room for three weeks? Or, if we just say the first term’s all online – do they rent a room for the whole term to lie empty? Is it actually possible to amend the curriculum like that? How do they develop friendships and belonging?

None of these issues are impossible – just ask the OU – but all of these problems do mean that a slowly developing hybrid period will be wicked, because the neverending debate on campuses about freedom of speech over the past thirty years hasn’t gone away – it’s just morphed. The new term will bring fresh battles – this time over freedom to be on campus and do things, versus a freedom to be safe from infection. And given the extent to which so much of that will be down to local decision making and the behaviour of actors within our communities, it has the potential to get just as ugly just as quickly.

Remember that week when universities had shifted their teaching online but libraries remained open? Imagine what it’ll be like to run the library during transition. As well as endless requests for online resources, there’s the building to run and an inevitably tighter budget. Command and control “open” or “close” notices won’t help – we’ll need to support library managers to consult, try things, involve students and other users in the decisions and be ready to change rules flexibly as the term develops.


In that blog I was talking about, Matthew Taylor suggests five principles for the transition that university leadership teams (and I’m counting leadership teams at multiple levels, as well as SU leadership teams) might well adapt.

  1. The first is that the public should have direct input to decision making. This one’s pretty obvious I think – but our tendency as a society to accusatorily finger wag at those in power will make it tough. What is required is a huge ramping up of our capacity and ability to listen – to students and staff, and crucially to each other. The debate needs to be across and between the wider university community – not just in the exec meeting or the board room. As a first step, every university in the country should grab a phone bank of willing staff and do this, shouldn’t they?
  2. The second is that no one should be either forced or incentivised to behave in ways that are dangerous to their health and the health of others. I’ll set aside my own view that ruling out a “pause” to January is daft and amounts to risky incentivisation at the altar of international recruitment. What I would say is that this is a smart objective to have high in the consciousness as each of these decisions gets made and revised.
  3. The third is that rules will need to be flexible, but transparency should be mandatory. Again this makes lots of sense – but there’s many a manager at many a level that will be terrified by the “legal liability” issues of transparency and are always keen to cover their backside with over-zealous compliance. We do need OfS and other legal minds to help us solve the tension here.
  4. The fourth is that the needs of the most vulnerable should take priority. This shouldn’t need explaining, but it probably needs to be obvious as well as practiced. Right now there’s probably thousands of students who’ve already effectively dropped out and thousands of staff that aren’t coping at all – we really need some more visible leadership over their plight (and more visible and acted upon empathy) if people are to trust that the vulnerable are front and centre on the thoughts of decision makers.
  5. And the final is that policy should be devolved where possible. Again, this makes sense in a university context – but people are going to need support to do this, and will need to be held to account over their use of the principles above. It’s one thing the VC remembering (or not) to meet the SU President. It’s another expecting the Director of Sport to run a proper consultation on how facilities will work, and thinking about prioritising disabled access to the gym without having to be told to – all while the budget’s under massive pressure.

Taylor’s principles don’t cover it all. One thing I’ve seen suggests that we all need to get good at simulation exercises that examine the interplay between complex systems – certainly true of universities. Another says we all need to be better at scenario planning. Most make clear that we need to be better at empathy and compassion. All of those things suggest a shift away from analysis of historical performance data – but that’s the big competence we’ve invested in in recent years, and it may need to be furloughed.

We would do well as a sector – over literally all of these decisions that might have to be made – to clamber up onto the elephant in the room and at least acknowledge that the pressing need to get students in, get their fee income, get their rent etc distorts and warps what we think is in the student interest. The sector already stands accused of being interested only in “bums on seats”. At every level in the sector, if something can’t be done without manipulating or distorting the student interest into keeping the money coming in, we’ll need to say so.

It’s also true that the institutional tendency to operate autonomously, competitively and alone should be checked – because being “first” with answers keeps looking unhelpful for everyone else in our new world. It was true over closing F2F, true over “no detriment”, true over hurling out unconditionals to shore up numbers, true over announcing September’s term dates and it will be true over every other decision about next term. In the transition to the new normal, our first question probably shouldn’t be “what are our competitors doing” but “who can we collaborate with over solving this problem”.

As Taylor says, a long transition will be extremely difficult, and many mistakes will be made – but it can also be a testing ground for the ways of thinking and acting we will need to thrive in the future – behaviours that we will want to inculcate in students too. Won’t we?

Pick up where this conversation left off with an event on Friday 15 May and join the debate with Wonkhe @ Home. 

12 responses to “If there’s no going back, how do we get forward to a new normal?

  1. The devil – as ever – is in the detail. Senior teams need to think ground up – forget the grand gesture ‘principles’, some poor thing has to work out what the words from on high mean for that 4 o’clock lecture for a cohort of 80 usually in that lecture theatre that holds 100 max, and social distancing has to apply at 2m. It is not going to help to have grand gesture promises first and local desperation to make it happen later.

  2. Eric Lybeck ( Univ of Manchester) has made some good points on Twitter mostly about taking things slowly and thinking deeply about new ways of doing things. As he suggests, Jan 2021 should be the new academic year start date with gvmnt compensating institutions for fees lost from Oct-Jan. This is a good idea. Only fools rush in…

  3. Agree a good piece. I liked Taylor’s principles when I first saw them. Two things standout in particular: don’t be afraid of making mistakes: they will happen, but unlikely to be fatal. And consult all round: better still, co-create with all involved, including students. In all respects this has the potential for a welcome transformation in the sector.

  4. This is a good read. Thank you. One of the most significant points for me (among a number of well made ones) is ‘that we need to get better at empathy and compassion’. This, from my experience links directly to two other points; about listening, and context.
    Strategic decision making based only on facts, figures and logic is one dimensional. When overlaid (or underpinned) with compassionate engagement and careful listening it is so much more effective.
    University teams at all levels and in all disciplines have risen to the challenge of the crisis, and ‘command and control’ had its place. Now would be a good time to empower those teams to have influence and control over the future ways of working, bringing their experiences and lessons to the fore, and for leaders to have courage to doubt their own judgement and be seen to do so.

  5. Excellent piece and interesting principles. I certainly believe most UK institutions would be wise to prepare for a January start and lobby for government financial support for the gap. Few are capable of delivering high quality on-line learning and where they have been surveyed prospects don’t seem to want this option even if offered.

  6. Really good article thank you but one point the 5 principles aren’t pick and choose…. you need them all.

  7. ‘don’t be afraid of making mistakes: they will happen, but unlikely to be fatal.’ is that the most appropriate language in these times?

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