Life Under Lockdown in Higher Education: Insights From a Global University
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed lives all over the world in ways that could not have been imagined only a few weeks ago. While health services have been impacted most severely, the consequences for higher education are also quite profound. Universities in the UK have been closed since 20 March, when the government ordered people to stay at home. UK students have returned to their homes, but many international students remain in the UK, either because they cannot get flights to their home countries or because they prefer to complete their degrees in the UK.
The University of Nottingham is termed the “the global university”, with campuses in Malaysia and Ningbo in China, besides Nottingham in the UK. These two branch campuses are also closed; teaching continues on all three campuses but in online mode. This takes different forms, including Moodle, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp and e-mail.
Impact on Teaching
My own teaching is focused on the School of Education’s MA in Educational Leadership and Management which has 75 full-time students, almost all of whom are international. This is a one-year programme, with four modules and a final dissertation. I lead and teach the third module, “Leading Learning”. Teaching for this was completed at the end of February. I was also able to complete face-to-face tutorials with these students before the university closure. Subsequently, I have maintained contact with these students via e-mail to support assignment preparation. Submission and assessment are both done via Moodle. Students will also be supported online for their final dissertations, which are due for submission in September. We are also holding online meetings with the teaching team, and the wider leadership team.
On 24 March 2020, the UK began its lockdown in which only essential businesses were allowed to operate, and members of the public had to stay at home except to purchase essentials. This came after a gradual restriction on movement and businesses; all bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants, schools and general childcare facilities were closed on 20 March.
Impact on Doctoral Supervision
I have 12 PhD students, five in the UK and seven registered at the Malaysia campus. The impact of the pandemic on the UK students has been limited. Four remain in the UK and I was able to hold face-to-face tutorials with them before the lockdown. Subsequently, I have maintained contact via e-mail and online tools. They appear to be progressing normally and coping with the isolation reasonably well. One student has returned home to complete the amendments required following her viva voce examination.
The situation for the PhD students registered in Malaysia is more difficult. Two of them were due to have their viva voce examinations in March but these were postponed indefinitely when the Malaysia campus was closed as a result of government and university policy. The viva is a high-stakes event, a culmination of four years of work, and students are inevitably anxious about it. This anxiety will continue for many weeks before the viva can be held. I was due to fly to Malaysia to attend these vivas but had to cancel my flight when the university closed. In my 28 years of doctoral supervision, I have never missed a student’s viva voce examination.
I was also due to meet my other five students, who are at earlier stages in their doctoral journeys. Face-to-face tutorials and annual reviews are postponed, with implications for student progression. Sustaining motivation is a challenge during the pandemic when health and family issues are understandably regarded as more important. One student also faces delays in data collection because schools in Malaysia are closed. Maintaining contact with them via e-mail helps to address all these challenges.
Impact on Research
Nottingham is a world’s top 100 university and the School of Education is one of its top-performing departments. Research is a central part of academic life, but field work is impossible in the current climate. The silver lining is that there is now more time for writing. Since the pandemic, I have completed and submitted a journal article with one of my doctoral students. I have also revised a paper arising from research supported by The HEAD Foundation, on educational policy reform in Malaysia, in response to the journal’s review process. I have also been conducting desk research, and preparing reports, for a study on school leadership in the Commonwealth, commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Impact on Other Academic Activities
I also edit a leading international journal, Educational Management, Administration and Leadership. Perhaps as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, there has been a sharp increase in the number of submissions to the journal, up about 50% from this time last year. The journal is managed through an online platform, Manuscript Central, and so is largely unaffected by the pandemic except for the increased workload arising from the record number of submissions.
I am also privileged to be the current President (2019–2024) of the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS). I have been involved in online meetings, notably when the decision was taken to cancel this year’s annual BELMAS International Conference, scheduled for July. This is one of the most important global conferences on educational leadership, so the decision was taken with great reluctance.
Facing the future
Excessive reliance on remote teaching and learning leads to an impoverished model, with students missing out on the wider benefits of global learning, including cultural gains.
The longer-term consequences of COVID-19 on higher education are harder to predict. If international students are more reluctant to travel to the UK for their undergraduate or postgraduate studies, this will impact university income and may have implications for staff employment and careers. The short-term switch to online learning may lead to a more permanent change in pedagogy. Nottingham’s School of Education already has successful online programmes, and these may thrive in the post-pandemic climate. Alternatively, blended learning models may become more common with a reduced reliance on face-to-face seminars and tutorials. However, it can also be argued that excessive reliance on remote teaching and learning leads to an impoverished model, with students missing out on the wider benefits of global learning, including cultural gains.
The post-COVID19 future for universities with branch campuses is also difficult to predict. Nottingham has thousands of Chinese students, who have chosen to come to the UK campus, rather than selecting the Ningbo campus, though the latter seem to be a good “fit” by providing a UK degree but within the Chinese cultural context. When I asked my Chinese students if they considered applying to the Ningbo campus, they mostly replied that they wanted the full cultural experience of studying in the UK, while also counting on English-language gains. The Malaysia campus positions itself as an Asian hub, notably for ASEAN countries, with some success. It is possible that the Malaysian and Chinese campuses will see an upsurge in student demand following the pandemic but, in the medium term, it seems likely that most students will continue to prefer a UK education. Predicting a post-pandemic future for universities is fraught with difficulty, but demand for higher education is certain to continue, and probably to grow, to serve the global knowledge economy.
Predicting a post-pandemic future for universities is fraught with difficulty, but demand for higher education is certain to continue, and probably to grow, to serve the global knowledge economy.
This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #08. Click here to read the full, online issue.