Taking stock

It depends where you look. The corona virus pandemic looks quite different in different parts of the world. In the global South, where communications and health systems remain more rudimentary, and where poverty remains the overwhelming challenge, the pandemic continues to rage. In the richer global north, the combination of vaccines and robust public health measures mean that 2022 will see the coronavirus move from the pandemic to endemic phase: it will become a manageable disease. What the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called ‘vaccine nationalism’ may be largely responsible for that, and there remains an overwhelming moral, and global public health interest, in addressing the gap. But the Spring of 2022 should mark a step-change in the way governments and societies in the global north respond to the virus. It won’t go away, but it will be managed ion different ways. And that prompts a huge question: what next for universities, for organisations, for society?

There’s a widespread consensus that the experience of responding to the pandemic has already produced far-reaching change in universities. Some of that change, frankly, has been catching up with digital changes in society. I can remember, just before the pandemic visiting another university. I got a bit lost on campus trying to find the Vice-Chancellor’s office, and when I got there, I said, “I don’t think much of your signage”.  The Vice-Chancellor responded “nobody uses the signs, Chris; everyone uses the app, you should have downloaded it”. A good deal of what has happened over the last two years has been a metaphorical response to that: finding ways to wrap learning around technology platforms which already existed. We’ve done that at Hallam. We are baking it into our forward thinking about the long-term vision for our extended campus, a common language for learning and our future strategy transformation programme. The progress has been enormous. But we know, alongside that, the craving amongst both staff and students for that sense of learning and working together which transforms buildings into places and collections of people into communities. The evidence from survey after survey is powerful: what students have missed over the last two years is not access to learning resources or the delivery of content – the commitment and imagination of staff has delivered that – but the sense of wider community. A key priority, here and elsewhere, is to find ways of doing that. I was talking last week to heads of department about some of the building blocks which will be a key part of that – the resumption of residential field trips, of wider volunteering. But we shouldn’t under-estimate the challenge for the sector in shaping something which combines the best of the new with the best of the old.

There’s an equally powerful consensus that the world of organisations has changed. We’ve all found screen working become more and more normalised. Some encounters seem to work well on screen, including one-to-one check-ins with peers and teams, largescale ‘broadcast’ meetings for information sharing and dissemination. Others don’t work anywhere near as well, including team meetings which involve divergent thinking and strategizing, or conversations which involve difficult issues and disagreement. I have a private theory that many people enjoy being at work, but few people enjoy travelling to and from work. We’ve all become habituated to working differently, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, so getting the balance right in the relationship between new and established ways of working will be a personal as well as institutional challenge. For myself, I’ve become used to operating via screen but have enormously missed the chance encounters with colleagues right across the University which were so valuable in allowing me to gauge how things were going.

The pandemic has – of course – been an enormous jolt for society more generally. It’s revealed the underlying strengths of this country – its scientific research base, its public health system, its universities – but cruelly exposed weaknesses, included an underfunded NHS and social inequalities. Early in the pandemic there was a strong sense that this should be a moment of societal change. Arguably, that connects to the government’s own ambitions for Levelling-Up, to reshaping the economic geography which has produced too many low wage, low productivity economies. But there are big questions here too. I was in a seminar a few weeks ago where a government minister talked eloquently about the need to pivot from the financialised City-led economic model of the last thirty years towards a science-and knowledge-led high skill economy. It’s perhaps easier to articulate that as a vision than to design the policies which deliver it. As we emerge from pandemic restrictions, there are strong pressures to ‘get back to normal’ and they are in competition with the pressures for fundamental change.

It’s not clear, and it’s certainly not straightforward, to understand how the experiences of the pandemic will play themselves out in the way behaviours, organisations and places change over the next few years. Nor is it clear quite how those three will interact. Change doesn’t always win through: a rather conservative US presidential candidate once won an election on the slogan ‘not nostrums but normalcy’. On the other hand, changes once unleashed are difficult to row back from. Some things can be planned and strategized – the University is embarked on an ambitious strategic change programme. But this will interact with the way individuals change and the way policy unfolds. The pandemic phase of the virus may be coming to an end in this country – but the impact is far from over.

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