Universities have a role to play in a pandemic and should adjust accordingly

COMMENT

How are universities as global institutions of higher learning managing Covid-19? 

Universities are complex institutions. I will not attempt to describe the role and purpose of the modern university here — safe to say that the views of John Henry Newman (The Idea of a University) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (his recommended views led to the creation of the University of Berlin) dominated Western thinking about the functions of a university. 

Sir Colin Lucas, former vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, remarked “…[universities] are seen as vital sources of new knowledge and innovative thinking, as providers of skilled personnel and credible credentials, as contributors to innovation, as attractors of international talent and business investment into regions, as agents of social justice, and as contributors to social and cultural vitality”. 

There is no doubt that universities, through their intellectual knowledge base, can add (and they do) enormously to the science of Covid-19, whether it is developing a new vaccine, modelling, and forecasting skills to understand the spread of the virus in specific regions or innovative methods for supplemental oxygen delivery. The role played by universities in this context is vast and critical. 

Universities serve a large variety of functions in the delivery of the academic project, which involves teaching, learning, research to maintain, manage, and develop the physical and digital infrastructure and the engagement with external stakeholders (to foster societal impact) such as alumni, schools, governments, industry, the private sector, commerce, donors and philanthropic foundations. Many universities are training medical doctors and other healthcare professionals, engaging with academic hospitals and placing them at the forefront of the healthcare system — a very complex organisation to manage, even in times with no crises!


Many universities have disaster management committees that were rapidly activated during Covid-19 to prepare plans for the unexpected. This pandemic, due to the extent of unfamiliarity and uncertainty thereof, can challenge these efforts and expose limitations in such plans.

It is important that universities have a framework approach of effective co-ordination, integration and decision-making that is centrally located but can act quickly. Although universities are not the same, there is a common drive for the health, well-being, and safety of students and staff. 

Typically, such a framework could converge in a decision-making executive centre (EC) or nerve centre, which should preferably be convened by the vice-chancellor, and include expertise in areas of scenario planning, project management, science (in this particular case it would be virologists and/or epidemiologists), communication and institutional culture. In order for the executive centre to be effective and fast-moving (with urgency and robust thinking), it should be organised around multidisciplinary task teams, each with these key responsibilities:

Teaching and Learning 

With the suspension of classes (specifically in countries where there is a lockdown), alternative methods need to be utilised to deliver the academic project, and most universities have moved online (although not online in the purest form, rather emergency remote learning — turning a course virtual in a short period of time, and more importantly, doing it well, is nearly impossible for faculty members accustomed to lecturing in front of students). Based on the extent of the particular lockdown period, academic calendars need to be adjusted. Low-technology approaches to teaching and learning should be developed that are sensitive to the challenges of connectivity, bandwidth and the type of devices that students use, realising the deep socio-economic inequalities and digital divide in our society. It is critically important to stay in touch with the students, and to provide online assistance with respect to counselling and mental health;

Research

Focusing on how experimental research will be conducted during lockdown, how research contracts will be managed during this period and beyond, and whether research funding will be redirected or terminated;

Science 

To understand epidemiological developments, verified information on Covid-19 (against the background of fake news);

Operations

Mainly focusing on environmental hygiene and the business continuation of the physical and digital plant;

Staff 

Working remotely, essential services (as defined by government), and crucial university functions, constantly staying in touch with the staff, especially regarding their state of mind (mental health) due to social isolation; 

Students 

With a focus on responsible student integration on the re-opening of the campus, where the principle of social distancing needs to be adhered to;

Financial and Legal 

Responsible for financial scenario planning, short-term cash management and risk management, and mitigation; and

Communications

Need to be centralised to ensure that it is consistent, correct, rapid and that it takes into account institutional culture when communicating — crises create anxiety, but keeping people informed helps reduce stress.

It is advisable to include a student voice or student input in the Teaching and Learning Task Team, as the living experience of students can thus be captured more accurately, which can enhance strategies.

It is clear that the world will operate differently post-Covid-19 than before the pandemic (“new normal”); the EC will become the source of scenario planning on how universities will have to re-imagine themselves post this pandemic. It is thus critical to ensure that data, experiences (although a health crisis, an economic, and perhaps a social crisis – an opportunity as a thought experiment), ideas and new networks are captured with a strategic intent and reflection within the EC. 

Not only has this crisis questioned the neo-liberal economies that traditionally limit government intervention and prioritise market interests, it also asked universities to think differently about their models of teaching, research, and internationalisation, and how co-creation across boundaries and different sectors of the economy need to be imagined.

A crisis is never straightforward to manage, but an executive centre-type structure could not only assist universities during this period, but can add valuable strategies to position universities afterwards.

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