Silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic: UP VC Prof Tawana Kupe on how crisis could positively impact universities

Posted on August 12, 2021

COVID-19’s toll on the mental well-being of staff and students at universities (and across every spectrum of society) is huge. This hasn’t been quantified as yet, but I think we’ll see the true after-effects when the pandemic subsides. It is important to not minimise the devastation when looking at what the upheaval of the past 18 months has taught us about higher education and how universities can carry these lessons forward, but there are indeed significant silver linings that have emerged that could help institutions shape a successful future.

Firstly, the need to cancel face-to-face meetings and conferences – often involving a degree of international travel – and transition to an online format, has meant travel budgets are underspent, and more people can attend global events than ever before. This is particularly relevant to countries in the Global South (Latin America, Asia and Africa), where costs are generally a constraint. The fact that the full recordings of keynote speakers are now so readily available creates a huge treasure trove of archived material which is accessible to an even wider audience. Of course, education and research have social dimensions that cannot be replicated through online meetings – informal discussions during coffee breaks and post-conference events are an important texture of what it means to be a researcher. But when I consider that I’ve signed ten major strategic agreements with counterparts across the world during this time, it’s clear to see an interesting hybrid opportunity emerge which needs to be carefully calibrated.

Linked to this, I think the pandemic makes us reconsider the traditional internationalisation model, where institutions aspire to having a large cohort of students leave their country to spend time at their universities. With this having been severely curtailed, it opens the conversation up to different modes of internationalisation that could leverage online education. What courses, for example, could higher education institutions jointly co-create, that could be taught online and not require the physical movement of students? This would mean larger numbers could be included, particularly relevant to those students who would not be able to access international education without a scholarship. This idea of an internationalised curriculum, and academics teaching across borders and boundaries, is a definite silver lining that COVID-19 has forced us to examine.

It should now be possible to graduate with a joint degree from different institutions, but we need to have a far more intelligent discussion around the construction of course credits and their portability. As in the case of conferences and face-to-face meetings, the holy grail here for me is a hybrid situation – there are many other forms of knowledge and graduate attributes that cannot be attained by studying a degree from your bedroom. Emotional intelligence, appreciating cultural diversity, learning how to properly engage and collaborate with others are part of the immersing aspects that make up a wholesome university education. How can we rethink, reimagine and recreate this hybrid space?

Additionally, when it comes to academia and the incentivisation to produce knowledge, there has historically been a “publish or perish” mindset. The pandemic has been a rude awakening that there are things happening in the world that require knowledge; things that won’t be impacted by simply journaling the findings. Academics will increasingly need to be assessed by how their research helps solve “real-life problems” and actually impacts society. I in no way mean that fundamental research that is curiosity driven is not critically important, but there is no more room for fetishising it and ranking it through a pride-driven model. What is also important is what kind of research we pursue. I think that certain kinds of disciplinary research have reached their sell-by date, and inter- and transdisciplinary models are far better at deriving solutions to the world’s challenges. There is room to rethink traditional boundaries between disciplines which can lead to more innovative work and a far more creative impact.

Another silver lining that emerged from the pandemic has been the moment of reflection with regards to our “humaneness” and the fact that we have lives and care responsibilities outside of our careers and academic circles. It has highlighted gender inequalities, and the need to recognise that working mothers, who were said to “bear the brunt” of juggling work and family responsibilities during lockdown, need to have a more carefully considered approach when structuring their role. This also goes for early-career academics, who are often placed under undue pressure to deliver papers at a speed which compromises their overall work/life balance.

Ultimately, it’s about asking ourselves what other areas of education and life we need to reform, and how we can do this at a faster rate, rather than wait for another pandemic or similar disruption to hit us. In my position as Vice-Chancellor, it is easy for me to talk about reimagining various aspects of higher education, but in the wake of the changes forced by this pandemic, I am interested in the thoughts of students, staff and researchers at all our educational institutions, as well as the general public, on how they experienced the pandemic and what positive aspects we can harness to take forward into the future. I am confident there are many lessons we are currently learning that we will spend many years examining closely, and many of these will impact higher education positively.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, and professor of media studies and literature. This is an edited version of comments made during a recent Times Higher Education panel discussion.

This article first appeared on news24 on 10 August 2021.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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