Rhythm and blues: Covid-19 and the disruption of the academic cycle

Though nature may be healing, the damage to the academic year from Covid-19 will be felt for years to come. Paul Greatrix feels the rhythm.

Things seemed so much simpler back then. Who doesn’t look fondly back at the now dim and distant golden age of higher education, those heady months of autumn 2019, when the only problems facing the sector appeared to be things like the impact of Brexit, financial shortfalls, pensions issues, industrial action, excessive regulation, international student recruitment, over-regulation, Augar review outcomes, subject-level TEF, and all the other problems?

A great deal has changed since then of course and the scale of the disruption to the pattern of higher education since March has been extraordinary. One of the most disorientating aspects of the Covid-19 crisis has been its impact on the normal pattern of the academic year. This has had a profound impact on lives of staff and students. All a bit obvious perhaps but I think the change to that timetable, that rhythm of university life has been one of the most unsettling aspects of the past four months and is likely to continue for some time to come.

Part of the joy of working in a university, for many academics and professional services staff alike, is that the academic year has a rhythm to it, a series of peaks and troughs, each with their own distinctive features. While there are periods of great intensity and stress there are also quieter times, allowing for recovery and recharging, for research and reflection. While it derives originally from an anachronistic agrarian calendar the pattern works for both students and staff, and this rhythm of the academic year is one on which university success is fundamentally grounded. It perhaps looks odd and out of date to outsiders and features term names – which may be quaint such as Michaelmas or Trinity or may be more prosaic like Spring or Autumn – but the pattern of the academic year, from the breaks at Christmas and Easter to the longer summer gap, all combine in a model which works for everyone and which makes university life manageable.

Keep it up, keep it up

Normally around this this time of year the Trent building quad at the University of Nottingham would be echoing with whoops of joy as students who had just received their results passed through on their way to or from celebrations with their friends. Then we would be having the mass pageantry and joy of graduation – the upbeat high point of every academic year – and then, before you know it, we are into confirmation and clearing, resit exams and then it’s all about the preparation for arrivals and the academic year all starts again. This year though could not be much more different. It is all about online final examinations, virtual graduations, the most uncertain post-A level results period ever, wondering if international students will show up and planning for a start of session like no other.

But it is not just the activities which have changed, the rhythm of the year has disappeared completely to be replaced with what feels like full-speed, flat out, non-stop activity. Now these are exceptional times and the same is undoubtedly true for many other sectors but the change for universities means that this relentless pace is perhaps more keenly felt because of the contrast with the model it has replaced. The fracturing of the rhythm, the disruption to normal working practices, the inability to go to the office, lab or library or indeed just about anywhere else, has had a real impact on many, many staff.

Over the years many a Secretary of State or Minister has dreamed of disrupting what they see as the cosy world of academia. To achieve this they have sought to regulate every different aspect of university life and impose assessment regimes on the core activities of teaching and research as well as changing, frequently, the funding model. And then there are the brilliant ideas for doing things differently, all meant to shake up the sector: 2 year degrees, PQA, an avalanche of MOOCs, guaranteed credit transfer, foundation degrees and the rest. Despite the contemporary contempt of some for universities (which have, let’s not forget, contributed hugely to the country’s Covid-19 effort) which they still view as very much like Brideshead but now with extra woke, actually the virus has done more than HE’s detractors would ever have thought possible to change the sector. And, however the government may wish to define “low value degrees”, it is undoubtedly the case that many universities are adapting, suspending or cancelling courses which they see as being surplus to requirements in this uncertain time.

Never stop the action

All universities are facing huge financial challenges of a scale not seen in nearly 40 years (see this recent piece on the comparison with the 80s finance cuts) and are having to spend more on preparing for a very different campus environment at the same time as trying to save money and protect the jobs of many of their staff. There has not been much meaningful financial help from government for the sector yet either. Moreover, the current burden of regulation is no trivial demand for universities and  – when combined with student number control, coping with the implementation of necessary Coronavirus measures and the very large financial challenges ahead – inevitably risks undermining the core activities of universities. All of this would be hard work at the best of times but it comes at a point where everyone has been working flat out since lockdown and all are now flat out to prepare for the new session within the rapidly evolving government guidance on every aspect of university operations. But the disruption to that normal rhythm of academic life has really had an impact too.

There remain many uncertainties about the start of session but universities have no choice but to continue to make all the arrangements we can to ensure that teaching and research restarts in the safest and most secure way. These preparations – to achieve a managed, staged and safe reopening – are likely to be among the biggest programmes of work most universities have ever undertaken. Then there are the preparations which are being made in partnership with local health authorities for managing campuses should there be local outbreaks. No-one should underestimate the sheer scale of the enterprise here and the consequences of mistakes but everyone working on these plans is, of course, aiming to minimise likelihood of that, recognising that the stakes could not be much higher in terms of the health and safety of staff and students, the institutional reputation and the longer term impact on university survival if things go wrong. But we have to do it – universities are fundamental to the country’s economic success and central to the health mission in the response to the crisis as well as educating the next generation of skilled workers.

Work to the rhythm

The absolute commitment to putting the health and safety of students, staff and visitors first and foremost in our consideration and all of the steps universities are taking to prepare for the next session in what is still largely uncharted territory together with the commitments to communication, openness, transparency and engagement are at the centre of every institution’s considerations at the moment. Despite the disruption to the rhythm of their working lives, the professionalism and ethos of our staff matters now more than ever to ensure that our universities survive and our students continue to thrive. This normal cadence then of the academic year really matters and it is unsurprising that the disruption to it has had a real impact on the working lives of staff as well as students. The impact of this will be felt for quite a long time to come as it is going to be some years perhaps before that customary rhythm returns in the form we remember it. All of which reinforces the need for all of the well-being programmes which institutions have put in place and for staff to take proper vacations, even if long-anticipated holidays might not be happening quite as planned.

This autumn’s intake have already been through challenges like no other and we have to try and do all that we can to provide them with the best possible student experience. As far as is possible we need to get universities, their staff and their students back into the rhythm. It’s going to be a long time though until that rhythm returns and it all starts with the new session this September. There is going to be plenty new but nothing normal about the academic year ahead. In the meantime universities have to continue to do the best we can, for our students, our staff, the communities we support, the nation’s health and economy and the country more broadly.

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