Universities looking beyond the COVID-19 crisis

COVID-19 crisis
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Amanda Crowfoot, Secretary-General of the European University Association, examines what the future holds for universities in Europe beyond the COVID-19 crisis

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Europe in March 2020, universities were quick to act. In a noticeably short time, courses and exams moved online across the continent, and higher education leaders rightfully took pride in their fast reaction, which ensured that universities did not close but adapted to the new situation.

We are now well beyond the challenges of immediate crisis management. Campuses are beginning to re-open and plans are being made for the beginning of the autumn semester. However, universities are facing a new normal rather than a return to business as usual. Well before the virus, changes were already underway in digital learning; online courses and blended learning have been commonplace since the beginning of the decade, but online provision has moved to a new level in recent months. The COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to reflect on change in universities, as well as in society at large. It could ultimately be a crisis that opens new doors and harnesses new possibilities.

At the European University Association (EUA), the crisis has given additional inspiration to ongoing discussions about creating a vision of what Europe’s universities should look like in 2030. While the initiative was already underway before the pandemic took hold, the crisis has given it more urgency and has provided an opportunity to think more deeply about a number of questions.

Digital learning

One of the clear changes that the crisis has accelerated is the growth of digital provision. Digital learning has now been tried on a scale that no one had foreseen. This became a chance to further consider the innovations that we have seen in learning and teaching in

Europe in recent years. In 2018, an EUA survey report showed that 94% of universities across Europe had given more priority to learning and teaching. The pandemic has only reinforced this.

The future of learning will almost certainly be blended, and there is little chance that we will go back to a model of provision where digital is an add-on or simply used for distance learning. However, the crisis has also clearly shown the need for face-to-face engagement as well. In the short and medium-term, this will impact on curriculum development, assessment and possibly the quality assurance of online learning. In the longer term, it will also lead to a deeper consideration of the role of online learning beyond “emergency remote teaching”, and to the realisation of its full potential, while acknowledging its limits.

The prominent position of blended learning in the future could also have an impact on the campus. We have seen an extreme version of “unbundling” where physical space, learning and knowledge creation are separated. This has shown us that physical presence is essential, but the purpose of being on campus could change, becoming even more oriented towards spaces for interaction. We will very likely see new and innovative infrastructure, for example, “brainstorming rooms” with soft furniture or “planning rooms” with flipcharts and touchscreens, replacing traditional auditoriums and classrooms. New buildings will also be designed for serendipity, chance encounters and mixing functions and disciplines. We already see this in the innovation sector, but these ideas will likely spill over to learning and research infrastructures.

The future of research will be sharing Sharing data and results openly and between disciplines is crucial. The crisis could well be the moment that takes Open Science to a new level. Already the fast sharing of the virus genome sequence – more than five times faster than during the 2002- 2003 SARS outbreak – was a showcase of efficient and timely use of open data. Since then, we have seen numerous platforms and further pledges to share results and data concerning the virus. The logical outcome of this success would be to pro-actively promote Open Science across all fields to meet the next global crisis, which might not be a pandemic, but something unforeseen and unforeseeable. For this, we need to continue to push for investments in common platforms and in data skills, promotion of FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperational and Reusable) data and make open access the norm in scientific publishing.

The crisis has also shown the need for interdisciplinarity in order to meet big challenges. COVID-19 is a virus, but the crisis is not just a virology challenge; it needs contributions from data and computer science to develop tracing apps, psychology and sociology to understand the impact on individuals and society and, history for comparison with other pandemics, and the list goes on. In EUA’s discussions of universities in the future, a recurrent theme is that research needs to continue to break down the disciplinary silos while upholding the traditions of knowledge and methods of different fields, and researchers need to have “multi-cultural” communication skills in order to work together between disciplines.

The changes have a cost. The EU long-term budget that is being negotiated should take this into consideration. We know that investing together in Europe produces excellent results: working together across borders and using our diverse expertise and perspectives is a great asset. For this reason, arguing for strong common investments at the EU level is central for using the opportunity that the crisis presents.

If the crisis has done anything for universities, it has shown us some potential paths for the future and has made us think about who we are and who we want to be. Now is the time for reflection and action, luckily two things that we know universities do well.

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Secretary General
European University Association (EUA)
Phone: +32 (0)2 230 55 44
Email: info@eua.eu
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