Professor Shearer West, President of the University of Nottingham - 'Universities are an essential part of the solution in post-Covid recovery'

Professor Shearer West
Professor Shearer West, Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Nottingham

'I have witnessed the impact of Covid-19 on universities from three different international perspectives, as the University of Nottingham has campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia.

We have been in a crisis that none of us have wished for, and we must lament the devastating impact on human life, the economy and the university sector itself. However, we would be negligent if we ignore what we are learning about the ability of universities to adapt to new circumstances, as they have done over the nearly 1000 years of their existence.

First of all, this crisis is teaching us a great deal about leadership. University leaders, like national leaders, were selected for one set of capabilities—for example, academic credibility, personal charisma and strategic vision. However, we have been thrown into a situation where an entirely different style of leadership is required: one that is empathetic, adaptive and resilient. I wonder if we will begin to see a new generation of university leaders who exhibit these more flexible and compassionate characteristics.

Most of our universities already have a strong track record in using blended learning, whether it is through development of fully online programmes, Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), flipped classroom methods and lecture capture. However, we also have strong campus communities where face-to-face teaching and learning is part of an enriching student experience. For more than 20 years, there have been predictions that online learning will make campuses obsolete. I would suggest instead that in the future, the on-campus experience will be valued even more highly than before, even while we are rapidly becoming much more sophisticated in how we use digital technologies in learning environments.

Those of us from more traditional universities will be accustomed to a culture of the status quo, of a ‘computer says no’ risk aversion and a resistance to change along the lines of ‘we have always done it this way’. While there are positive sides to maintaining powerful traditions, stubborn resistance to change can lead to stasis. Given that we had to respond rapidly to lockdown, to working from home, to changing processes and practices almost overnight, a number of these excuses have been swept away. Will our future university operate more like a tech company, where process is less important than achieving outcomes?, where innovation becomes embedded in how we operate?, where agile working becomes the norm, with all the advantages that has for environmental sustainability?

The U21 network includes some of the world’s top universities, which are enriched by staff, students and alumni from all over the world and international research collaborations. The current crisis has understandably made most countries turn inward to ensure the wellbeing of their citizens. However, closing borders has choked student mobility and slowed down research collaboration, even at a time when international research collaboration is crucial in providing some of the solutions to Covid itself. Looking ahead, the international perspective of universities will be even more important for the future in an era when globalisation is under threat.

'Looking ahead, the international perspective of universities will be even more important for the future in an era when globalisation is under threat'.

The same is true for our civic role. The social and economic impacts of Covid have brought universities even closer to their local stakeholders, whether they be local government, businesses, or health and social care providers. At Nottingham for example, we have provided equipment for testing and accommodation for pressured NHS workers, and significant numbers of staff and student have volunteered to support those who are vulnerable or shielding. Universities are essential to helping the UK recover from the economic disaster that accompanies this crisis, as we will not only continue to be major local employers, but we will be crucial in upskilling or reskilling local citizens to thrive in a post-Covid economy.

University staff and students have, on the whole, coped extraordinarily well with a crisis unlike what any of us will have experienced in our lifetimes. However, there is a danger that a pandemic of mental health problems will follow the Covid pandemic. Too much is happening at once: the rupture of routine, pressures on work/life balance in lockdown, the differential impact of the crisis on those from BME and poorer backgrounds, the lack of physical human contact and interaction, as well as the constant reminders of death, tragedy and grief. Nevertheless, the crisis has given us a greater and more personalised understanding of the challenges being faced by our colleagues and students that will help us support them more effectively over the coming months.

There is a long way to go. The next few months are going to be extremely challenging for universities and much more difficult than the last few. However, looking further ahead, I hope to see us retaining the positive changes that have emerged through the crisis and for universities to be an essential part of the solution in post-Covid recovery.'

R Edwards