The Pandemic Reshapes Academic Life – How We Respond Is Key

Academic life is constantly changing, but in the context of COVID-19, those changes have been accelerated.

This essay is part of the series “The New Normal: Perspectives on the Impact of Covid-19 on Academia”.

By now, we all know that the pandemic is forcing, and will force, big changes in university life across the globe. Not all have emerged from the pandemic directly, as academia was already undergoing seismic changes pre-COVID-19.

Take teaching and learning. There was already a shift toward online, digital formats in aid of ‘flipped learning’, and the pandemic has simply hurried that along. It has forced many to develop online versions of their courses, which will probably remain in place to some extent after the pandemic. Indeed, it’s possible that the large physical lecture will disappear altogether, creating problems for universities in relation to how to repurpose their infrastructure.

Another area facing accelerated change is how those in academia access research material. Journals are almost entirely digital already, and there has also been a shift towards more digital versions of books rather than hard copy. In terms of my own field, sociology, researchers rarely make physical visits to university libraries – the pandemic just accelerates that tendency.

Digital Scholars

Visiting fellowships are going to shift towards versions that do not require physical presence or travel, I suspect. For example, I was going to be a visiting research fellow in Hamburg in May this year. For the time being this has been converted into a ‘Digital Fellowship’ for the European 1st semester – I see this trend continuing.

“The shift to digital formats will change the logic of how human networks are formed and ultimately, influence how we relate to others and how we interact.”

I imagine the effects of this shift will be both positive and negative. Interviews are more likely to take place over platforms, such as Zoom, than face-to-face. However, the shift to digital formats will have deep implications. It will change the logic of how human networks are formed and ultimately, influence how we relate to others and how we interact.

Radical Shifts

But whilst the pandemic will accelerate change already underway in some areas, it will have a transformative impact on others. One such area is conferencing. The pandemic will impact all aspects; how they’re delivered, how they’re held, where they’re held, and who goes.

Clearly, current conferences will have to switch to online formats but what will happen long term? The likelihood is that future conferences will by hybrids of ‘in person’ and online and this in turn will place fresh demands on venues and their cost.

Conference travel will be hit hard. The financial impact on universities also means there will be far less funding for this. It will also change the cost structure of conferences – unfortunately, I suspect this will make it harder for academics in the global South to host conferences.

Changing Business Models

The financial impact is likely to be dramatic on both universities and on faculty – this is clear. It’s hard to know how universities are going to change in the context of the attitudes of successive governments towards the sector. The whole model has been a circular one of universities chasing the rankings they need, to attract the international students they need, to fund the research underpinning the rankings.

The pandemic’s impact has been amplified by the dependence on international students, making it clear that business model needs to be rethought, with a stronger orientation towards domestic students.

So, the problem will be how do develop a model for the university that isn’t concerned with rankings and doesn’t depend financially on international students – one that can rely on the domestic market.

Yes, the change will be lasting, but the form that it takes will depend on how the Commonwealth government proceeds and the innovation of university administrators.

New Research Directions

The pandemic will also produce shifts in the fields of research more likely to be considered relevant and to gain funding support. Health-related and epidemiological research is likely to get a significant boost, along with studies examining how pandemics start and develop, how they are managed, as well as their psychological, emotional, cultural and mental health dimensions.

Against the background of the existing issues surrounding global warming, it’s likely that the various fields of environmental research will become even more obviously relevant, such as human-animal relations, urban development, and its impact on habitat destruction.

So, as a new researcher, one could be advised to orientate one’s research towards topics that engage with some aspect of the role of disease, animals, the environment, in human experience, and this could take place pretty well in any discipline – politics, sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, cultural studies, organisation studies, criminology, or law.

In Summary

The pandemic is fast changing many areas of academic life and it has already changed some for good. However, it is up to the various key players in higher education – government, university management, staff, and students themselves – how we all react to these changes and crucially, whether we adapt. How we respond will be key.

[Title Image via Getty Images]

Robert van Krieken

Robert is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sydney, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania. His research interests include the historical sociology of the self, celebrity society, law and regulation, criminology, and populism.

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