Since the publication of USSbriefs92 on 12 March 2020, much has changed around universities’ response to the global Covid-19 crisis. Having only just returned to work on 16 March following the as-yet unresolved industrial dispute, academics, professional services staff and students have been forced to transition to a different world. Suddenly our homes are university infrastructure, we are trying to deliver seminars and lectures via various technologies, some more fit for purpose than others. Many others are wondering if and when our next paycheck will arrive. As we begin self-isolation or social distancing, as trains and flights shut down, as university life as we have known it has come to an end, we are forced to discover and adapt to new ways of collaborating across space and time.

Meanwhile, the government’s announcements have trickled out each day. First, last Monday (16 March 2020) recommending (though not banning) mass gatherings. By Wednesday, we learned schools would close and GCSEs and A-Levels would be cancelled. At this point, dramatic, short-, medium- and long-term consequences became clearly visible for British universities and their staff. For many parents now expected to work from home, the notion of completing our normal workload with school-free children in the background felt daunting to say the least. Finally, complete national lockdown was announced on Monday 23 March.

For the university sector as a whole, it threw the admissions procedure into chaos. The end of exams, under the often-criticised system of conditional offers made before they were taken and confirmed afterwards, meant it became impossible to determine who would or should be going to which university. Because coursework for A-Levels had been abolished (when Michael Gove was Minister of Education and Dominic Cummings his advisor) meant no grades could be awarded on work already completed.

A whole industry was threatened. The initial response from Alistair Jarvis at Universities UK — that universities would simply admit students based on predicted grades — was not fully thought through insofar as such a decision would result in some universities being overwhelmed, with others short on students. Such is the way our current higher education system is organised: as an unnecessarily high-stakes competition between students and institutions, where the game is structured largely around status hierarchies and the pursuit of knowledge is secondary.

Most universities’ senior leadership teams have responded rapidly along lines relatively similar to those we recommended in USSbriefs92, where the priority has to be the health and safety of our communities. And yet, in many other ways, university leaders are struggling to think beyond the next few weeks or months. While trying to reassure students that teaching and assessments will proceed more-or-less as scheduled and that they will receive a qualification ‘broadly comparable’ to that for which they enrolled, university managers seem to assume that the university system, and indeed the world, will be the same as the one that has prevailed for the past 20 years. Yet, as we reflect on this, at the end of March 2020, the world in a month’s time is unknowable. A Conservative Government is nationalising companies and placing the economy on a wartime footing. It is unrealistic and foolhardy to assume any of the previous way of doing things at universities can be the same after Covid-19. We must acknowledge that we are in a crisis, requiring crisis management; in such circumstances, ‘business as usual’ can be highly dangerous, damaging, and irresponsible.

Why should institutions not reflect the extraordinary times their students and staff are going through? The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has moved to Pass/Fail for undergrads. They also created a new grade for those affected by Covid-19 called CV, which will give students three additional months to complete work. The University of Alicante has launched an emergency social volunteering programme for staff and students (with credits) — one group for those with useful knowledge of biology, nutrition, physiotherapy; and a second group for everybody else. Why, when we are asking healthcare workers, food and medicine suppliers, teachers and other key workers to adjust to the short and longer term crises we are facing, are we so determined to carry on as if the world in which we drafted our syllabi and exams is the same one when we begin marking, as if we could carry on working just as before? Can we not start by taking a moment to pause, reflect, and take stock before flailing into action?

We therefore urge university leaders, academics, professional service staff, students, ‘wonks’, policymakers, parents, school teachers — everyone — to avoid urgent reactions to return things to the status quo ante. Not least, it is worth recalling that the HE sector was not working particularly well before the Covid-19 crisis. We must use this as an opportunity to completely rethink the university sector — as a system — rather than as another version of the same problematic institution, only more online. Should we not reconceive of the university and its relation to the public, precisely because our societies are entering a period of crisis we have not seen for decades? The epoch we are entering is unprecedented and what is called for is unprecedented thinking.

We should be wary as well, when the scavengers are already circling. Goldman Sachs consultant Adam Nording sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to:

dramatically accelerate the long-term acceptance of online learning… Previously, investors looked at edtech as a niche industry. Today, investors are approaching edtech as an asset allocation category… capital efficient solutions that can accommodate students and drive incremental tuition revenues without requiring costly physical infrastructure are more valuable than ever… we’re likely to see higher education institutions adopt many of these enterprise-level technologies, in the same way we saw the healthcare industry adopt software and data analytics.

At the same time, the Office for Students is being given new powers to shut down or create universities at will.

Universities must not simply adapt to this new normal. We must at the very least temporarily abandon the organisation of our sector around the principles of competition, focusing instead on cooperation and collegiality, as John Holmwood recently argued. During these unprecedented times, we need to reimagine how universities can best serve both our most immediate neighbours and the entire world. We have the potential to help cure the disease, and to mitigate its effects in so many ways. Nothing will be the same again, and we must begin to reimagine what we all must do moving forward.

Some Vice-Chancellors, like Stuart Croft at University of Warwick have begun to recognise this. What we must not do is defer to those ‘leaders’ who refuse to lead or acknowledge the scale of the crisis we are facing. Although Universities UK describes itself as ‘the voice of universities’, its origins were as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom (CVCP). The organisation accordingly seems to regularly confuse the needs of the leaders of those institutions with the institutions themselves. They then project the kind of student that would have to exist for ‘business as usual’ to proceed — the imaginary student desperate to be assessed, rather than the actual students trying to get home, caring for relatives and, like all of us, trying to keep it all together.

By waiting for these managers to find a collective response to the unknowable, universities have been too slow and reactive in responding to the current crisis, and generally have appeared incapable of recognising the scale of the disruption we will face. At the same time, they are urgently making hasty decisions without consultation. Indeed it took an intervention from the Universities Minister to stop institutions offering unconditional offers — which at a time when A-Levels are apparently going to be replaced by predicted grades would be the very worst of all worlds.

It is crucial too, that the issues raised by the UCU strikes are addressed as a matter of urgency. We can applaud those institutions that are recognising their permanent staff have caring responsibilities but what will happen to the precarious and the casualised — who do not get paid without work? How will universities respond to the gender and race pay gaps? We need to ask how things got so bad in the first place.

We cannot afford to allow the aspiration for ‘business as usual’ to be the norm, now or after the Covid-19 crisis. In the weeks to come, USSbriefs will explore new directions in a range of new briefs. We encourage you to submit your ideas for how we can do things differently. These will explore both immediate and long-term alternatives to the way universities and society have been organised. For example, we have learned that REF2021 has been postponed. Should it not be cancelled? Should we co-develop new methods of teaching and research with communities beyond our disciplines and classrooms? Can we reclaim the trust and democratic authority to steer our institutions in the directions we need to go, whether that is tackling climate change or soaring inequality?

We also need to recognise the demands these times of isolation, anxiety, and for many, increased uncertainty of income, are making on us all. Our relationships with our colleagues, our students — and most probably ourselves — will never be the same again, and neither will theirs with us. Universities have skills in science and medicine that have been acknowledged in the government’s responses. The resources universities have in the social sciences and humanities will be equally important in helping society respond to its collective trauma.

We must become part of the solution, else we will remain, in too many ways, part of the problem.

Please join us in working out what our universities can and should be, now and in future.

This paper represents the views of the authors only. The authors believe all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs93; the authors will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.