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COVID-19: Did universities plan for the rising flood waters?

“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark” That was the 'planning' proverb used during the difficult times in the 1920s and 1930s. However, its origin is obscure and goes back to the 19th century. Whatever its origin, it holds as true today as it did in biblical times. Businesses and services that failed to build in contingencies and ‘redundancy’ are sinking fast as the pandemic 'waters' rise. Universities are no different. They are large and complex operations that have sought to maximise efficiency and cut costs with little room for redundancy. This approach is now being put to the test. Despite the pressure, it seems that there is some thought being given to offering fairness to students who are confused about how they will be treated. But time is running short for confidence to be retained.

Sustainability of universities in the face of huge financial losses has seeped into the mainstream media today. See BBC News ‘Coronavirus: Universities warn of going bust without emergency funds’. Add this to the likelihood of student number controls, and a severe ‘damping down’ of the student market in a fiercely competitive environment, then a new reality emerges. Fear of the closure of universities is a real prospect. The news arises now because Universities UK (UUK) has today produced a ‘Package of measures proposed to enable universities to play a critical role in rebuilding the nation’. It is an urgent plea for help. A detailed paper ‘Achieving stability in the higher education sector following COVID-19’ outlines the challenge facing universities in the near and longer-term. 

The Office for Students (OfS) has not responded – but it has recently produced ‘slimmed down regulatory requirements during coronavirus pandemic’ to clear the decks for some emergency measures likely to come.

With ‘Too big to fail? A request for government support for providers following Covid-19’, Wonkhe has provided a detailed analysis of the extent to which some universities are exposed financially to a decline in students from outside of the EU. This excellent analysis pre-empts TEFS own analysis of how different universities rely upon a variety of income streams. The idea of a series of ‘bail-outs’ by the government has been resisted in the past and might be a ‘bridge too far’. But then ‘bridging loans’ for a limited period might seem reasonable now. Indeed, they will be needed if institutions are to remain solvent. However, they will also be the subject of intense scrutiny and a more open declaration of reserves will need to happen. This might shock some observers. Then there will be a need to examine the degree to which there has been cross-subsidy of activities. The astounding admission from UUK that “Some research activities and high-cost STEM provision will stop as income from international students is used to cross-subsidise these areas” might come as a surprise to some observers, in and out of government. Yet it is a fact that will not go away.

Almost a year ago (now feeling like another time altogether) TEFS highlighted the same issue for STEM subjects in relation to the proposals from Augar ‘Augar Under the Microscope: STEMing the Tide’. The impact of a possible cut in fees on STEM subjects was explained with “The roots of the issue lie in the extent of cross-subsidy and a lack of understanding about how science works. The link between research facilities and teaching are not always appreciated and only those universities with well-founded laboratories will survive the cuts.’ This is now even more urgent as income declines across the board. UUK is right on this occasion – but should have seen this coming earlier. The introduction of a false market in university provision is looking more like a failed project as each day goes by. Rapid unregulated expansion is also beginning to look like a very bad idea.

Student examinations.

The problem of assessing the attainment of students will also not go away. That is the horrible reality facing university managements and most seem to be determined to press on with some examinations. A look through the advice emanating from the Russell Group Universities shows that these are likely to be kept to a minimum. However, there is the tricky problem of balancing standards with the removal of a large proportion of the assessments. This is turning out to be a major headache for the managements whose main concern is to maintain their reputational position. There have been suggestions of offering students a choice between assessing course work or taking an examination. This is open to problems in maintaining standards and one notes that,

“Fundamentally the degree award would be different between those who opted out of a final assessment and those who opted in. This would raise questions of the comparability and fairness of awards. We need to ensure that standards have been met for us to award degrees”.

Then there is the problem of complying with professional accreditation bodies. Obvious examples include training for doctors and nurses. But there are many other organisations. For example, the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (IBS) is responsible for the accreditation of many university degrees that involve practical training (I ran one in the past). However, the IBS has responed to the crisis by rearranging its own examinations that include practical assessments. There are also many professional requirements associated with engineering. As for Biomedical Sciences, these requirements are safety-critical. A good example is the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) that accredits degrees in the area. Although there may be less emphasis upon accreditation, most science courses formally comply with guidelines set out by main professional bodies. For example, I was responsible for organising microbiology courses within several
degree pathways that met the best international standards set out by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Microbiology). A key part of the expectation lies in “Microbiology Laboratory Skills” that includes training to “Practice safe microbiology, using appropriate protective and emergency procedures”. Managements will have to consider the effect on these vital activities. No doubt there will be many more requirements that universities will have to consider across many subjects.

Becoming detached from reality in the laboratories and classrooms.

The crisis has exposed the detachment of those in senior management from reality on the ground. This is exacerbated by the wide range of educational activities that they cannot possibly understand. In relation to the plight of students, it has also revealed the full extent of the inequality that hid below the surface before now. However, a look across the www sites of the Russell Group Universities reveals that they are beginning to wake up to the situation. Most have decided to press on with some examinations but have deferred announcements about the examination timetables. It is important to stress that the longer they wait, the more stressed and anxious the students will become. Most have concluded that the number of examinations will have to be reduced.  Some are determined to hold so-called ‘open book examinations’ online. They seem to be a good compromise on the surface; however, they will lead to further inequalities. The use of existing examinations, that mostly test knowledge, will be open to collusion and cheating if done online. Therefore, new questions will need to be formulated quickly. As a former external examiner at three Russell Group universities, I shudder at the thought of how this process will be handled. The only valid idea is to change the questions to those that are more problem based and not reliant on rote learning. Indeed, they are the perfect antidote to simple rote learning but will be very unpopular. As students in the 1970s, we were subjected to six-hour open book problem questions that could not be easily revised for. The considerable anxiety had some of the edges taken from it by attending a series of problem-based tutorials well in advance. Without such preparation, an open book examination, with hastily formulated questions, might do more harm than good.

If that is not bad enough, the next big danger lies in questions that offer advantages to students with ready access to technology and supporting materials. They might even be able to call upon relatives and friends to help with the examination. Thankfully, universities seem to have recognised that disadvantaged students may not have help or be able to easily access the internet or library facilities. To counter this potential pitfall, some are offering the idea of a 'safety net'. In one case this is cited as “ensuring that you are not disadvantaged by the current COVID-19 situation because the teaching you received or your assessment preparation were adversely affected, the nature of your assessment was significantly different, or you were unable to demonstrate your true ability because of the impact of COVID-19 on you”. This means that there are likely to be many cases of ‘extenuating circumstances’ emerging in the coming weeks. 

The pressure on staff in the front line of teaching is rising fast as they try to adjust. Poor decisions by senior managements lead to unsustainable workloads on staff stuck at home; some with families and caring responsibilities. I know of staff who are working regular twelve-hour days.  This also exposes the wide disparity in teaching burdens amongst staff. Some concentrate on research whilst their colleagues must deal with the increasing teaching and examination problems. Those with responsibility for complex research laboratories have additional challenges in keeping essential equipment safe and in working order. If I was back in my own laboratory, I would need to at least maintain cultures and check freezers. One failed -80oC freezer and years of work could be lost.  This then begs the following question.......

How prepared were our universities?

Below the surface, they all have developed ‘business continuity plans’ to prepare for events such as this. Much of this activity dates back to 2005 and the fallout from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. A lack of preparedness was a key factor in making a slow recovery. However, in the case of our universities, these plans amounted mostly to paper exercises. 

The conclusion reached back then in relation to the science laboratories was that there would be no continuity of most of the work. Online substitutes were either not possible or poor replacements. Yet all scientists involved in the subject of microbiology were not thinking about 'if' there would be a new pandemic. It was instead a matter of 'when'. Managements were well aware that a crisis of this nature would emerge at some time. Each institute has a small team looking at 'business continuity' and some level of preparedness was in place. The problem is that most staff outside of this circle have not been offered the time or encouragement to make contingency plans a priority. Most of the teaching and assessments in use were not designed to be flexible enough to move online easily. No thought would have been devoted to working out how fair or equal the provision is for all students. The consolation now is that this aspect is coming into view and things should change forever.

To help develop their plans, our universities belong to the Higher Education Business Continuity Network (HEBCoN) which is also associated with the wider Business Continuity Institute that has been active for over twenty-five years. At the time of posting, there is nothing relating to Coronavirus or COVID-19 on the HEBCoN www site and they suffer the irony of postponing their conference planned for March. But they have reduced the membership fee from £250 to £150. This buys universities into a mission that is to "promote and enhance the ability of Higher Education Institutions to identify and manage their risks, withstand and respond to disruptive events; maintaining the delivery of critical services to students through the sharing & promotion of best practice in risk management, emergency planning and business continuity"It will be interesting to look back in a year and see if this was effective and if changes needed to be made. One issue that emerged quickly was that the plans had not fully considered the issue of fairness and equality for students. The clue lies in the use of the term ‘business continuity’.

Noah planned by building a massive Ark to save all animals. Let us hope that our universities are trying to do the same for their students and staff. Let us also hope that the well-paid managements are not concentrating on making scuba respiratory equipment for themselves while the rest drown.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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