Two months into the Corona pandemic, universities are turning their attention towards the Fall. The crucial question facing us is how many students will register for our programs come September. After all, everything we do depends on these registrations. They determine the way our education is financed, shape the hours we will spend on teaching, and what kind of teaching and research we can do. They also directly determine the fate of the enormous amount of people on short-term and flexible contracts that keep universities going. No one yet knows, however, what September will bring, and whether the prospective students who are registering now will be able to participate in courses here, in the Netherlands.
Earlier this academic year we were recommending our education programs at various education fairs. We used social media to spread the word, gave campus tours to prospective students, and spoke about the insights and futures our programs would give them access to.
In all likelihood, we will be unable to meet the promises we made to these prospective students. For sure, we can test their progress online, and teachers have found ways to somehow reach and educate students to enable them to finish their academic year without causing delays or additional student debt. But for the coming academic year, we urgently need to reflect on the question of whether this allows us to provide good education to our students. Indeed, students should be critical of the promises that will be made to them in the near future. Travel restrictions aside, university campuses are simply not built for the ‘1.5 meter society.’ Their architecture and infrastructure cannot accommodate this physical distancing, and the size of some of our classes is such that it would be irresponsible to meet even when keeping a 1.5 meter distance.
A shared plan is lacking
Online teaching was perhaps a reasonable option in the context of the current academic year. In the absence of financial compensation for students and institutions, the financial repercussions for students would have been devastating. So we’ve been coaching our students to the finish line of the end of the academic year as well as possible. With that finish line in sight, we are however confronted with the next question: how to proceed in September, especially with students that have never before been in a lecture hall?
Deans and rectors emphasize that they value our work, and are anticipating a transition towards digital or ‘blended’ education. Meanwhile, our Minister admits that ‘quality cannot always be guaranteed,’ and advises students to take on additional debts. Yet a plan, idea, or vision for teaching in times of corona is lacking. In fact, everything points to the fact that administrators will, for the foreseeable future, hide behind the fait accompli of a state of emergency. Surely, no one wants to abandon students. Surely, no one wants to increase the burden on colleagues. And surely, ‘everything is possible’ with digital resources.
So we are approaching September and are forced to keep all our options open. Meanwhile no one can tell us what the 1.5 meter university will consist of, except for the fact that education, for the first time in history, will now be given a radically different form: primarily online but with the same resulting qualifications and the same content—at least, that’s the idea.
Are we afraid of screens and apps? Definitely not. Digital technology originates partly from universities themselves. What we are resisting are the ways in which these technologies are now – and later – taken to be equivalent for education as a meeting, an encounter. And that we are made dependent on very specific kinds of digital technologies that were developed in Silicon Valley, driven by profit instead of the concerns of pedagogical communities. As such, we resemble many others whose working lives are reduced to the bare minimum by the ways in which screens and software are used. The ease with which some institutions started to implement incredibly invasive forms of technology like online proctoring is disconcerting. The distrust towards students evident in the digital surveillance that is being rigged up, the ease with which people are saying goodbye to physical libraries, paper, and physically being together is disturbing.
Stumbling into a new normal
How much of the digital crutches will remain in place after this crisis? Will this turn out to be an exceptional situation, with exceptional measures, or will many of these measures—online courses, digital exams—soon be made a component of the new normal, so that with very little reflection we are being imbricated in a totally different mode of education? In other words: what is our exit plan?
Above all, the current crisis has serious consequences for different groups of employees at the university and until now there has been little discussion of this. COVID-19 is certainly unexpected, but at the same time it strengthens the existing manner by which Dutch universities are managed: employees, the majority with flexible contracts and therefore great uncertainty, must work harder and harder without receiving any extra resources. How will staff on temporary contracts or tenure tracks be compensated?
How will the so-called “flexworkers” that make the university possible—cleaners, office workers, security guards, IT personnel—be compensated? When will tutors and educational assistants have a moment to catch their breath? How can we ensure that inequalities aren’t deepened? How will costs be shared? How will we prevent a competition for student numbers via the flexing of universities’ digital muscle? What can be expected of coming rounds of educational evaluation?
The massive transformation to online teaching is taking place while professors, researchers, and even executive boards have for some time now indicated that the rug has been pulled out from under universities. There is a quasi-permanent threat of budget cuts for many universities. First of all, because the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (OCW) is adopting the advice of the Van Rijn commission, but there are—as is evident from the ‘Brede Maatschappelijke Heroverwegingen’ — potentially many more drastic options ready as well.
We were already structurally overburdened, and have for years made do with too few resources—and now, as if it’s nothing, extensive digital improvisation is expected for an extended period without a serious plan for the future. How different this is from what the joint rectors of Dutch universities wrote in an op ed piece in De Volkskrant late last year: ‘Digitalisation threatens our university. It is time to draw a boundary’.
This can’t be.
Without a plan and conditions, it is impossible to begin the new year in September. When the Minister, the VSNU, and the executive boards fail to provide a plausible and ambitious program in the coming months and to put together measures, then there can be no talk of continuing within the present uncertainty. It is impossible to make our students believe that this is what studying is, that the administration of study points and diplomas is our bottom line. It is impossible to continue the already artificial competition for enrollment while the austerity plans already circulate.
In the absence of a serious plan for the future, the search for temporary solutions is relegated to staff of the lowest possible rank. And those staff – unjustly – feel guilty for falling short. And precisely because of that we feel even more pressure to compete with each other, to spend even more time taking part in competitions for ever more limited resources. A transformation of education into a digital knowledge transfer and examinations in anxious anticipation of student numbers is unacceptable. But even when some activities can again take place in physical proximity, extra financial support is necessary.
A weak minister is not an excuse
The minister ultimately determines the resources, rules and frameworks. But the executive boards and the Association of Universities can also do much more than they seem prepared to do. If the administration is not prepared to send their minister to the cabinet with a clear message, then they are not doing their jobs.
The message with which they should send her to cabinet must be that in the absence of a plan no real education is possible in September. It simply cannot be offered. Those who can’t draw a boundary here, who are not committed to a plan to preserve educational quality, have accepted their role as a diploma factory in which teaching is equated with ceritification. For many this raises the question of whether that is a university that is still worth fighting for.
Therefore, we call on Dutch universities to come up with a serious, collective plan in which at the very least there is an answer to the following four questions:
- What is our exit plan? Is there an exit plan? Or is the Corona crisis a digitalization from which there’s no turning back, or at least not entirely so?
- How can we support those providing digital or blended education? Which resources—time and money—will be used?
- How do we guarantee access to higher education for all students—also students who don’t have the resources to purchase the best internet access or laptops? How will we ensure that digital learning methods don’t come at the cost of equal access to and chances within higher education? How do we guarantee the privacy of students and teachers alike?
- How do we prevent that the consequences of the crisis deepen existing inequalities within the universities? This is in reference to inequalities between permanent and temporary contracts, between those with and without care tasks, and between those of differing backgrounds and migration status.
In the absence of answers to these questions, a vision —ultimately a vision about the public tasks of the university, about what and who universities are for, and what teaching and learning together is — we cannot move forward. Out of concern for our education, our students, and our working climate, we await the answers.