1. Introduction

Covid-19 has thrown into stark relief how universities are prioritising institutional reputation over social responsibility. Since the first detected outbreak on 31 December 2019, the scale and severity of Covid-19 has rapidly become apparent. Universities have a special, dual responsibility in the public response to this outbreak: first, as vital sources of expertise, and second, as potential centres of infection and transmission, with cosmopolitan communities of staff and students working in close proximity to each other. Yet, while UK academics are fulfilling the first role, and professional services staff have been working hard to develop contingency plans, the lack of clear communications from most of the UK HE sector suggests it is valuing institutional reputations over its wider responsibilities to staff, students, and society. The 10 weeks since the outbreak began have been marked by an absence of effective leadership that is all too familiar to those working in the sector (see USSbriefs15). The simultaneity of the 2020 period of UCU industrial action and the Covid-19 pandemic makes this absence starkly apparent. In this USSbrief, we outline the arguments for universities taking more robust action to delay the spread of Covid-19, the implications of the inevitable — and overdue — closure of campuses, and what the Covid-19 crisis tells us about the state of UK HE in 2020.

2. The global response (and responsibility)

While HE’s response to Covid-19 has varied around the world, there is clear evidence that early, robust action can help to delay spread of the virus and help to ‘flatten the curve’. For example, Hong Kong universities have been closed since mid-January as part of a range of ‘social distancing’ measures which appear to have drastically slowed the spread of Covid-19. In the US, many universities have taken the initiative to close campuses and move to remote teaching and assessment, even before any staff or students have tested positive. By 11 March 2020, over 100 US Universities had closed or moved teaching online.

In Europe, Italy has been on the leading edge of the outbreak, offering lessons on the speed with which the virus can spread. Epidemiologists suggest that the UK may not be far behind Italy in terms of an explosion of cases which will put a dangerous strain on health services. University College London biology professor Dr Francis Balloux said: ‘The trajectory of the epidemic in the UK is so far roughly comparable to the one in Northern Italy, but with the epidemic in Northern Italy two to three weeks ahead of the situation in the UK.’ Private companies have quickly implemented business continuity plans that prioritise social distancing within organisations, acting fast to protect their staff and core business. UK companies like Crossrail, or Omnicom Media Group have responded swiftly to this threat. International organisations such as CERN are moving to having most staff work from home to slow the spread. Urgent social distancing measures have been shown to be ‘essential components’ in the public health response to past pandemics, and central to reducing the numbers of new cases in China’s Wuhan Province.

3. UK HE’s lack of response

These responses lie in stark contrast to those visible in UK higher education, where ‘business as usual’ has largely been the order of the day, despite universities’ clear potential for rapidly transmitting Covid-19 between staff and students. For example, while geography staff around the UK quickly appreciated the challenge to field classes presented by Covid-19 (both in terms of sustained close proximity with others and the risk of introducing the virus to protected, thus far unaffected locations), they have been met by what one professor described to us as ‘slow and inactive universities … leaving frontline staff unable to provide clear answers to distressed students’.

Universities have also continued to hold open days, encouraging hundreds of new visitors through their doors. This is the very opposite of the social distancing measures that have proved to be effective in Hong Kong and elsewhere. While some funders and learned societies, such as The Wellcome Trust and Microbiology Society, acted rapidly to cancel large gatherings, Universities UK (the ‘voice of universities’) continues (at least as of 11 March 2019) to host events. Ironically, given universities’ unparalleled expertise in epidemics, the UK HE sector and its representative organisations are shrinking back from their responsibilities to student welfare and public health at a decisive moment. This is particularly noticeable in light of the UK HE leadership’s insistence on their commitment to student and staff health and wellbeing. This disjoint between words and actions can be explained as a product both of universities’ evolving focus on ‘reputation’ as central to their business models, and of increasingly ‘lean’ business models that make it harder to think and to act appropriately in response to a phenomenon of this complexity and gravity.

4. Reputation over responsibility

The philosopher of science Heather Douglas identifies two different types of scientific responsibility: role responsibilities, which are related to scientists’ core goals, and general responsibilities, which take into account the societal impacts of scientists’ actions. This typology can also help us to understand the responsibilities of universities, and the two-fold mistake that underpins UK HE’s passive response to the Covid-19 crisis.

First, as Douglas argues, role and general responsibilities are often in tension with one another. As is often the danger, UK universities appear to be focusing too narrowly on their role responsibilities at the expense of broader public health concerns regarding their potential for incubating the virus. Second, universities increasingly see their role responsibilities as a focus on the ‘student experience’, rather than a duty of care to their students and staff. The UK HE business model is no longer based on prioritising student welfare and graduation — even as it insists that it is taking the crisis of student mental health seriously — but on gaming league tables through extracting value based from student experience, staff research, and institutional reputation (see USSbriefs16). This has opened up a chasm that has disarticulated these metrics from the people they are supposed to represent: we see the damage in relation to staff workload, mental health, and now the protection of the health and safety of staff, students and wider communities. The care that is invested by institutions in ‘student experience’ as a metric does not correspond with the experience of care by students themselves. As the world faces perhaps the biggest threat to health since the 1918 influenza pandemic, British universities appear to be amongst the last to acknowledge the scale of the crisis, despite employing some of the world’s leading epidemiologists, virologists and public health experts. ‘Student experience’ — that abstraction which has held university staff and students in a vicious pincer for far too long — needs urgently to be abandoned as the primary driver for university life. ‘Delivering student experience’ has made it much harder to attend to universities’ duties of care, not only to their students and staff, but to wider society.

But the task here will be a large one, given how much of universities’ attention is taken up by a focus on their reputation. This was starkly illuminated in the leaked minutes of the Russell Group meeting on casualisation (held in February 2020), in which damage to brand reputation was highlighted as a key impact, ahead of the manifold consequences of casualisation on both staff and students. Universities’ conception of reputation centres on league tables, be they in the higher education press, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) or the National Student Survey (NSS). To draw on Joan C. Tronto (2010), their systems are oriented to ‘care about’ student experience through abstract metrics, above effectively delivering ‘care for’ their students. This arguably makes any serious appraisal of social distancing measures harder to effect: any ‘first mover’ institution seeking to take unpopular, but necessary, decisions to close campuses risks plummeting student satisfaction and demands for fee refunds. The tragic irony is that while such actions may — temporarily — protect a university’s reputation relative to its ‘competitors’, the sector-wide inertia will bring yet more negative press (alongside the student and staff mental health crisis, and bleak industrial relations [see USSbriefs66]) to the UK HE sector as a whole.

5. A responsible response: two critical missions for UK HE

The sector has so far failed to recognise the scale of the challenge presented by Covid-19, not only to its day-to-day operations, but also to the assumptions that have underpinned HE management and growth in the last decade. If universities are to truly live up to their responsibilities, both to students and broader societies, then they should immediately re-prioritise their operations around two critical missions: student welfare and effective use of research expertise.

First, student welfare can be aided by reducing opportunities for transmission. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that social distancing will be crucial in this regard. Whether such measures are taken up voluntarily by universities, or imposed on them by government, the amount of pedagogical and technical work required will be unprecedented in its scope and urgency, as staff address the challenge of a rapid move to remote learning. Social distancing would require the temporary suspension of lectures, seminars, lab sessions and conferences, which remain incubators of infection through airborne respiratory particles, regardless of handwashing practices. Student assessments would also need to be rapidly transformed in order for students to graduate on time. Such circumstances would require concerted, co-ordinated efforts from all university staff [1]. This, in turn, should mean that non-critical activities which currently absorb huge organisational attention and resources, such as REF, NSS, TEF and KEF should be urgently reviewed at a sector-wide level and, if necessary, suspended. Sector representatives should enter into urgent discussions with the UCU and other campus unions regarding the impacts of such an effort.

A focus on social distancing does not imply, as argued by some vice-chancellors, that national and international students could be ‘sent home’. Only that universities consider not organising activities that threaten student welfare. Where requested, universities should make provision for international students to return home and continue to receive remote teaching, while students who rely on earnings from campus jobs should be recompensed. Universities also need to take very seriously how students are differentially positioned in relation to Covid-19 as both a health and a potential socio-political crisis. The virus has been racialised, the UK border regime is violent (see USSbriefs38), and minoritised and/or international students will be particularly vulnerable.

Second, there is an enormous wealth of research expertise within universities. In addition to the indispensable contributions of epidemiologists and virologists, universities have access to other expertise in the social sciences and humanities (e.g. to sociologists, historians, political theorists, and science and technology studies scholars) that is essential both in understanding the pandemic and its effects, and in deciding how best to intervene in a politically and socially fraught terrain. This expertise should surely be inflecting not only the decisions of university senior managements, but also UK HE representative organisations.

6. The moral bankruptcy of the UK HE business model

The Covid-19 crisis has again highlighted the failure of leadership within UK higher education. Universities urgently need to restore their sense of responsibility to their students and wider society, and acknowledge that a business model focused on maintaining reputation has skewed priorities and eroded their public status. If this had been done earlier, we can imagine a very different scenario playing out in recent weeks, where universities would acknowledge the broader risks of ‘business as usual’ both on and off campus, and how these might outweigh any imagined benefits to institutional reputation. There are growing indications that the fatality rate from Covid-19 will vary significantly dependent on how effectively interventions to delay the spread are used: an inadequate response by universities to Covid-19 has the potential to contribute to thousands of extra deaths. The apparent absence of leadership and responsibility, either from individual universities or at sector level through representative organisations, exposes the ethical void and moral bankruptcy at the heart of the UK HE business model.


[1] The challenge in the coming weeks and months is enormous. It will require a huge effort from staff, many thousands of whom will have shortly completed a period of 22 days of strike action over attacks on their pensions, pay and conditions. In recognition of this, and as a step to restoring the good will they will rely on, universities would do well to announce an amnesty on all pay deductions arising from the 14-day strike of February and March 2020.

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 #USSbriefs92 ; the authors will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Warren Pearce

Researcher and teacher, University of Sheffield.