Monday 11 May 2020 1:38 AM UTC
May 11: Covid-19 pandemic has caused a huge upheaval on thousands of international university students in the UK. They are faced with uncertain times. Nikita Hari, a research fellow at University of Oxford, is a scientist, academic and technocrat.
She holds a PhD from University of Cambridge and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at University of Oxford. Nikita shares her thoughts on how universities would shape up in future with Balagopal, a journalist based in the UK.
Education heavily derailed and disrupted
We believe that education connects us, and at this historical time of unprecedented uncertainty, this is more important than ever.
Globally, as we were forced to disconnect physically from the conventional spaces and practises that rule our everyday lives, educational sector worldwide was quick to be heavily derailed and disrupted.
At this momentous juncture in history when academic expertise and research is banked upon for evidence base, vaccines, treatments and policy insights, these institutions are in parallel facing an existential crisis with a pressing need for reshaping and restructuring in the face of COVID-19.
I am too affected
As a scientist and technocrat who is awaiting a transition from being a research fellow at University of Oxford to an academic position at Dyson Institute of Technology, currently, my own future looks increasingly uncertain.
I’m caught up in the long lockdown in India with me debating in my head the risk of returning from the Covid plateaued Kerala to Covid high risk UK. I feel safe here in my hometown of Kozhikode and have full faith in the public health systems and pandemic management in my home state.
But, as a product of the globalised education and liberal world, I see my career plans increasingly threatened. My personal journey combined with the collective reality of many shared experiences, raises many questions in my head about the future of higher education.
Effects of this pandemic on incoming and outgoing students, the potential decline in international students leading to plummeting university incomes and studying abroad becoming a lost dream have been discussed by many.
As social distancing measure sare set to be the new normal, I will delve deeper into the chaotically dynamic higher educational space.
Deafening silence in universities
March – April is normally the craziest months in most academic calendars worldwide. Academics rushing to finish lecture schedules, students running to meet project deadlines, many final year students on toes to find jobs with others applying for higher studies and so on.
These swarming activities are accompanied by endless trail of paperwork for staff, crowded libraries, jostling lecture halls and lengthening queues in campus cafeterias. These busy and loud few months form the lifeline of all universities.
This year, there is a deafening disturbing silence. Universities are in lockdown and everyone advised to work from home with exceptions solely for COVID related research like those going on in Oxford, Cambridge etc.
Those students who are left back in hostels and dorm rooms are ones who couldn’t get back to their countries due to ongoing suspension of international flights during lockdown.
Switching to digital platform
Displaced to a digital platform but not discontinued, teaching, learning and research is going on, at least in the higher education sector. Universities were quick to adapt to ‘Zoomification of Education Delivery’ with virtual classrooms offering teaching, counselling, tutoring support and conducting online exams.
Engaging with students providing them with technical and mental well-being support from the confines of their homes, academics and support staff have in most cases risen to the call of duty displaying strong sense of commitment.
Democratization of technology
While it was relatively easier for the developed world to transition to a virtual world of online education, countries like India are grappling with this issue of access to internet and technological devices are still limited to the urban population.
So, this definitely brings to centre stage the question about Democratization of technology.
This is a crucial issue, comprising internet connectivity, digital literacy, infrastructure, affordability of online system, availability of hardware and software, educational tools, online assessment and evaluation tools.
While displacing to digital classrooms have its drawbacks ranging from lack of physical proximity, less familiarity with students with unease in mentoring and monitoring to passive delivery of lectures, it comes with plethora of opportunities.
There is going to be an explosion of online courses, decolonisation of curriculums, non-casualisation of academic work with a shift away from on-campus research and innovative online teaching methodologies.
All of these could open doors for more collaborative and effective teaching, research and scholarship. Moving forward, educational quality will be independent of the physical location and will depend majority on the expertise and skill sets of educationists.
With the constant pressure to erect state of the art workspaces and with the train of administrative paperwork going non-existent, Universities can find themselves free to reimagine their place in the post-COVID era.
Right time to redefine education
For time immemorial, universities have been distracted from their core functions of contributing to society by equipping the future generation with skills, experience and knowledge to solve societal problems.
Instead, institutions worldwide were sucked into marketisation of education, casualisation of academic work with a time consuming bureaucratic regulatory framework and competitive ‘publish or perish’ culture that depended heavily on world ranking and league table recognition.
This pandemic has shown that ‘high-rise buildings and high-tech infrastructure’ were hollow when needed most. It is the sheer flexibility, adaptability, responsibility and solidarity of the academic community that let the show run from the confines of their homes from across the globe.
Covid-19 perhaps is offering the right time for universities to redefine, reshape and restructure its purpose and relationship with the students, academics, staff and public!
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