Benchmarking Higher Education: The Pandemic
Once in one or two generations, nations face a challenge that can abruptly shape their future; and very few times humanity faces challenges that stretch its limits and require a focused and calm approach. By any account, the recent pandemic meets the above characteristics and, thankfully, as a response, governments and people relied on science and trusted the opinion of experts as the carriers of deep scientific knowledge and experience.
Very early, it was apparent that managing the virus at a personal and social level was and still is a complex matter. It involved complicated interactions at multiple levels based on a multi-disciplinary approach. Science, culture, politics, economics, psychology, medicine are just a few of the fields that contributed to the management of the pandemic.
Experts were central in comprising a response and an action plan. They were so instrumental that influenced the day-to-day behaviour of the public and formulated, if not overrode, political decisions on civil matters. By many, this was the right approach for the reason that experts are the people who have the experience and the intellectual capacity to assess the risks and benefits, are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and are the right people to guide societies out of the dark place they found themselves. After all, and rightfully, no one expects a layperson to be able to understand the complexity of the matter.
Nevertheless, there is now mounting evidence that the measures and the actions experts introduced, and governments implemented on their advice, have caused disproportionate harm to several social groups. Lockdowns, social distance, masks with unproved effectiveness, missed and unrecoverable learning opportunities, undiagnosed diseases with certainty -not probability- of damage (e.g., undiagnosed cancer, delayed treatments, unsupported mental health problems), public phobia for socialisation, anxiety about a catastrophic future, financial devastation of small business owners, reduction in civil liberties seem to take over and nullify any short-term benefits societies saw from our efforts to manage the virus. On top of this, the irony is that a layperson was able to feel in their skin the overwhelming potential of the long-term consequences of the response to the pandemic.
From an educational standpoint, this situation begs a question about the expertise of the experts. What kind of expert is unable to see the devastating consequences of the approach they devise and implement? How is it possible to suggest actions that a layperson can see as having a strong potential for a negative effect in the long run?
I feel that we, as educators, and more broadly the higher education sector, have played a role in this. Every day, in every University classroom across the country, we ask our students to “critically evaluate”, “reflect on their skills and weaknesses”, “appreciate real-life complexities and multi-disciplinary approach”, and “conduct science in an ethical manner”. We typically down mark them when they do not demonstrate such skills. Nevertheless, when experts, whom you expect to possess mastery in the above attributes, were called into action, they misjudged the situation and, as it turns out, opened pandora’s box.
It is easy to say they failed. But they didn’t alone or on their own accord. They are experts in their niche extremely specialised area and very good ones no doubt. But they are also the collective outcome of our educational system. I am not implying they bear no responsibility; what I am suggesting is that higher education has failed; miserably, big time and, with a big bang.
We failed to foster experts who appreciate that complex and convoluted systems like a society do not work in the same way a discussion on a case study in a classroom works. We made them feel reassured and confident that actions on public issues are like academic issues; things you contemplate protected by the luxury of a theoretical debate between a lecturer and a student in the safety of a classroom. We cultivated experts who simplify interpretations in the same way we create programmes and modules that simplify transferable and tacit skills to learning outcomes.
We failed to instil a reflective practice. If you consider that lessons in reflection can be found in primary education all the way up to higher and in frameworks like UKPSF and CPD, it is at least disappointing to realise that our experts have never had any doubts or concerns about the validity of their judgment on a pandemic that was unparalleled and caused by a novel virus. Too many unknowns and yet too much confidence.
Paradoxically, the experts who came out of this higher education system threaten it by making it appear obsolete. It is not easy to realise that the same system that produces high-calibre researchers has failed to develop situational awareness and scepticism in them. It is not easy to recognise that we must be doing something wrong or, at least, very poorly and inadequately.
But we have an opportunity here. We can, or should I say we must, rewind and, even, reboot higher education. It is an opportunity to evaluate again the fundamentals of our education system, our priorities, and our goals.
We can consider what purpose higher education serves today and contemplate whether we are happy with it. Once higher education was about creating a better considerate person able to express empathy. It provided the foundation to see the world in the eyes of other people, to understand that there are many right answers especially to complex problems and to appreciate the effect of science on society.
Today we are fixated and well-grounded in a short-sighted linear worldview. What drives Universities is recruitment, pass rates, progression, employability rates, operational efficiency. We treat widening participation and equality, undoubtedly very serious matters, in the same way a military officer plans the provision of weaponry for their team. We are convinced that it is enough to just alter a variable (e.g., more BAME students as in more weapons) to alter the synergetic effect in a convoluted ecosystem (e.g, more employment opportunities for BAME as in more military power). We forget that military teams are highly reliable and efficient because they work hard, train for a very long period, the members are selected on merit and talent and effectiveness depends largely on time, place and circumstances.
Once we used to teach students that science and knowledge need patience, dedication and hard work. Today, we teach students how to prepare for an assignment. We raise their expectations all the way up…to the next assignment deadline and, at the same time, we convince them that a pass mark will download all the knowledge of the world in their brains in a blink of an eye. We appear convinced ourselves. Then, we are surprised when we look at the booming industry of essay mills.
Once education was about social mobility; it was about offering an opportunity to people to live a prosperous and meaningful life. Today education equates to an opportunity to appear attractive to employers. We do not seem to do this well, either. In the last two decades, every University in the Western world has partnered up in one way or another with companies to build programmes that develop employable graduates. We are proud to advertise them in our brochures and web pages. Nevertheless, year after year employers complain that new graduates do not have the necessary skills. In response, we spiral back and change our programmes again.
A very narrow perception of higher education indeed. A lot has been written about reimagining education and Universities but reimagining the programmes and modules has not attracted a lot of interest; and, when it does, it translates to using fancy online platforms and technology.
Reimagining a module would mean developing a student into someone who can deal with complex problems considering potential consequences outside a narrow field. I can offer a very specific and practical example. A typical learning outcome in modules is “to demonstrate problem-solving skills”. A technocratic scientist solves a complex problem by applying theories and frameworks. A scientist who considers multifaceted repercussions wonders whether solutions are worth the risks.
The statement sounds like a cliché and such an obvious declaration. Nevertheless, I am not sure that we really consider it in our practice. If we did, we would accept that a solution to a problem that balances the wider impact can be a no-solution (or, a partial and limited solution) as in “no-action should be taken”. Such a solution in real life can represent an educated decision based on limitations in knowledge, skills and the inconceivable complexity of the matter. I wonder what markers would feedback if a student argued that doing nothing or offering a very limited reaction is the best response that balances gains and losses for a given problem. Would this student meet the learning outcome? Would this statement be a good answer in an interview with a potential employer?
This example only attempts to show an aspect that escapes our educational programmes. It involves reflective skills, knowledge and an evaluation of complicated interconnections between different stakeholders. It, also, points out the contribution and the expectations of what we typically call “the system” (i.e., markers, employers). It represents a specific educational philosophy and pedagogy. If you consider that similar situations can be identified in numerous modules, across programmes and in teaching and at different levels of education, it is not hard to see the synergetic effect that led our pandemic experts to become unable to envisage the wider consequences of their consultation.
The pandemic presented an opportunity for Higher Education to reconsider the direction it is heading, what the priorities are and what kind of scientists we want to see in the future. I am not claiming it will be easy to change or that any change is coming. I only remain hopeful that we can open the conversation as this opportunity is too good to miss.
Full Disclosure: I tried to publish this article on WonkHE. When I pitched the idea, the editors were very enthusiastic but when I sent the actual piece, I think they were not very happy. After a couple of emails about the wording, they stopped responding to my emails.