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Universities will play a key role in building resilience and trust in this Covid decade

The British Academy was commissioned by government to think through the long-term impacts of Covid-19. Sarah Cowan explains how universities will be critical to national recovery efforts.
This article is more than 3 years old

Sarah Cowan is Head of Higher Education & Skills Policy at the British Academy

We are in the midst of a global crisis threatening the health of millions of people. History has taught us that pandemics are just as much social and economic crises as they are medical and health ones. Lessons from the past also suggest that times of upheaval can be opportunities to reshape society.

On 23 March 2021, the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, the British Academy – the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences – published a comprehensive review of the long-term impact of Covid-19 on society and a selection of policy proposals for the nation’s recovery. This included a thorough exploration of the impact on education – from early years to tertiary – and its impact on the economy and labour market.

But universities’ roles are not confined to education and training. The evidence of long-term societal impacts indicates how government, universities, and a whole range of other non-governmental bodies can help to rebuild bonds within local communities and share knowledge and information in better ways, improving society’s resilience.

The Covid decade

Every day, we see headlines engaged in the battle over 21 June as a day of freedom. Tempting as it is to think of this date – now mere days away – as the potential end of Covid-19, we know the crisis will be affecting our lives long after this.

In conducting its review, the British Academy concluded that the UK is facing a Covid decade: the social, economic, and cultural effects of the pandemic will cast a long shadow into the future and will emerge differently across places, at differing scales, and along different time courses.

By looking across our multidisciplinary evidence base, we identified nine interrelated areas of long-term societal impacts which could play out over the coming decade. They range from widening and exacerbated inequalities to lost – and likely unrecoverable – access to education, training and skills development at all levels; and pressures on revenue streams, meaning we need new ways of weighing up expenditure against economic and non-economic impacts.

These impacts will be felt differently by individuals, communities, regions, nations, and the UK as a whole. Some are new but many more are well established, and their trends can be observed in past crises.

Given the deep and complicated impacts that emerged from the evidence, it could be hard to see where to start. With a restricted public purse, where do you allocate funds to do the most good? Do you rob Peter to pay Paul? What is the risk of creating a zero-sum game?

However, the important message from our reports was this: interconnected challenges require interconnected solutions.

Partners in building resilience

Several university recruitment trends indicate the immediate role that universities can play in the post-pandemic recovery. The rising applications for medicine, nursing, and allied healthcare following the onset of the pandemic marks higher education as a vehicle for improved resilience.

So too does the increase in applications from mature learners – which has seen the single highest year-on-year growth since 2009 – as people seek to improve their personal standing in a weakened job market.

But universities are more than providers of education and practitioners of research; they solve global challenges, work with their local communities, and improve social mobility. From donating supplies, resources, and spaces, to flexible furlough schemes modelled by economists at the London School of Economics and world-leading vaccine research at the University of Oxford, universities applied themselves in many ways throughout the Covid-19 efforts too.

The UniversitiesUK campaign #WeAreTogether recorded many more of the ways in which universities have helped in the fight against Covid-19.

Continuing to improve the UK’s resilience to future crises will require a more stable policy environment for higher education. The British Academy highlighted the policy options this would allow universities to fulfil in the Shaping the Covid Decade report that accompanied our research into the societal impacts of the pandemic.

For example, many more people who have fallen out of the labour market will need retraining. This would address chronic educational inequalities and help to build the future economy we want to underpin our society.

This should be part of reaffirming strong general commitment to lifelong learning but also include a focus on specific training programmes that improve digital literacy and support key recovery sectors such as new technologies, green innovation, and health and social care.

To achieve this, there will need to be policy change to ensure the continued widening of access to tertiary and adult education with the resources, and not just the rhetoric, necessary to properly commit to lifelong learning.

Improvements made by investing in new technology and introducing better digital services can help tackle educational inequalities and can also improve the overall quality of education. But this is contingent on better translation of knowledge and expertise between researchers, educational professionals, and the ed tech industry to ensure schools, colleges, and universities can confidently invest in the right areas.

No one policy solution will address all the challenges but we must look at the interconnected effects of them all in a systemic and systematic way.

Improving public trust

Beyond education, universities can build on their existing civic roles and increase their engagement with local communities. The key area where this might have a significant impact is in the levels of public trust in decision making. While trust in local government and feelings of local unity have increased during the crisis, there has been a marked decline in levels of public trust in national government.

Our evidence showed trust in national government was at a low and unstable level even after the initial successes of the vaccine rollout in the first part of this year, and a March budget announcement promising more support for individuals and businesses.

As a result, we need to explore ways to increase the transparency of the underlying science, research, and information for policy decisions, and part of this should be greater focus on public communications from non-political sources – universities included.

Universities can explore ways to reach local groups who tend not to consume mainstream media and official sources to tackle the spread of misinformation. Trust is an important currency in a crisis, and universities can help to maintain it.

The Covid Decade reports also highlighted the unreliability of information-sharing between different layers of government, between governmental departments, and between government and external bodies, highlighting a clear area where resilience against future crises can be improved.

Evidence supplied by the Institute for Community Studies highlights the role of Area Action Partnerships in County Durham – providing fast and comprehensive support to shielded and vulnerable local residents – as a case study in effective learning and information-sharing among partners, in real time.

Elsewhere, the partnership between the University of Leeds and Transport for Greater Manchester allowed local transport authorities to build greater flexibility into their Covid-19 recovery plans.

Effective, joined-up decision making gains a great deal from the breadth and depth of expertise in research, data analysis, and communication available at a local level. Locally grounded scientific advisory networks and analytical capabilities in the form of local observatories would be one way of bringing together local expertise in civil society groups, local government, businesses and – crucially – universities.

By looking strategically at the options for policy intervention and thinking beyond government to how different actors can work together to bring about positive outcomes, it is possible to mitigate the most harmful impacts of Covid-19 on society while identifying new opportunities for the UK to thrive.

And, importantly, we can consider how to build a society which is more resilient to future crises, be they health, economic, or social ones. The policy options outlined in the Covid Decade reports require vision. And they require coordination: policy change, cultural change, and social change working hand in hand.

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