There is a sense that the world is slowly returning to normal. Sure, we have war in Eastern Europe, inflation, which we have not seen for decades, is back, and we are still suffering a crisis in supply chains, but our daily lives are starting to feel recognisable. We have begun again to enjoy cafes, restaurants, live music, and performances, as well as our beloved sporting events.
As the saying goes, however, a good crisis should never be wasted. We should not see the global pandemic as an event never to be repeated, rather as a lesson that highlights our vulnerabilities and strengths.
No industry sector should learn more from the global pandemic than the education sector. Having spent two decades working with universities, here are the five lessons our educational institutions should take away from the pandemic.
1. Online platforms are fundamental
The forced closure of campuses meant that students all over the world were left stranded at home. Most institutions quickly moved their learning and teaching online. Universities kicked aside the many bureaucratic procedures that slow innovation to provide the student body with a new way of learning.
As this happened, those universities that responded best realised the importance of both updating and maintaining their online platforms. Just as important was the empowering of staff through recognition, reward, and training.
Today, post the pandemic, most students expect a hybrid approach in their education journey. The appropriate investment in online platforms makes this possible.
While there is no doubt this presents huge challenges, it also provides universities with the opportunity to be innovative and improve their online learning offerings for current and future cohorts.
2. Class counts
In a famous essay written eight years ago, author Tim Winton discusses the concept of ‘class’ in Australia which, he argues, is rarely mentioned. While both schools and universities worked hard to move teaching online, and in some cases did an outstanding job, the truth is that there was no equity in access.
All too frequently assumptions were made that each family has access to one laptop per child, high quality Wi-Fi, and that there were locations at home that were conducive to study. Many families did not have this luxury.
Further, the amount of support parents could offer varied significantly. Some parents understood the challenging journey of a university education, while others had no idea. As the first member of my family to attend university, I could not imagine my parents truly understanding just how challenging this would have been.
This also played out in the professions and educational experience of parents. Some students had the luxury of parents working from home so did not have to wear the responsibility of caring for siblings, while others struggled to have any income.
3. The value of community
The community of support around you is fundamental. When we moved into lockdown and had to isolate, we learned the challenges of staying indoors and avoiding physical contact with other people. Those with strong community ties could support each other in these times – even if only virtually.
The institutions that responded best were the ones that kept regular communication with both staff and students: updating them on the status of the situation, finding ways to utilise digital platforms to facilitate human connections, and provide support for those isolated.
Nowhere was this more important than for international students who were all but abandoned by the then federal government.
It was not only the federal government that failed on this front. For too long, may universities have treated international students as ‘cash cows’ and focused more on recruitment than on their educational journey. The international students left here had little ties with either the broader university community or even their local diaspora.
4. Good educators need to be rewarded
Ten years ago, I was awarded the nation’s most prestigious teaching award: The Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year. Along with the award and a photograph with the then Prime Minister, I received substantial funds.
A colleague pulled me aside and advised me that I should utilise the award money to, ‘buy myself out of teaching’ and concentrate on my research.
Herein lies the problem with universities: good teaching is not as respected as much as research. Universities treat teaching as a secondary priority to research: promotion through teaching is almost impossible. In contrast, a research track record will get your there. There is no ‘sabbatical’ for teaching, or for improving your teaching materials. So, you are rewarded for successful research by being required to do less teaching. This is fundamentally wrong.
Financial compensation counts, but there is a need for a cultural shift in the way good teaching is recognised. Universities can address this by adopting policies that reward good teaching. That may include rewarding the production of innovative teaching materials, in the same way that research publications are treated.
5. The value of international connections
The pandemic highlighted the extent of the international interconnectedness of higher education. As the borders shut, not only did the value of international students become apparent, but so did the research partnerships that drive innovation. Travel bans meant established research projects had to be abandoned and careers stalled, or stagnated, as networks could not be developed.
The rapid development of COVID vaccines underlined the value of international collaborations, and the need foster them. Hybrid conferences are valuable and should remain, however, it is longer-term exchanges that matter. They have the greatest impact. Students, or researchers, gain from the ability to build deep cultural and working relationships on a global level. It does make a real difference.
The pandemic taught us that we could respond quickly in the face of a crisis. The challenge now, is to not to forget those lessons and allow systemic inertia seep back in. If we do, a good crisis will certainly have been wasted.
Professor James Arvanitakis an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University, and the Patron of Diversity Arts Australia.