Few Lessons from COVID

The pandemic at the end of WWI shutdown Australian universities, but they were quick to move on when it ended – just like now.

A Senate Committee inquiry into the case for a Royal Commission on COVID-19 demonstrates the pandemic’s continuing impact on Australians. It sets out comprehensive terms of reference, including how government management impacted higher education.

There were four submissions by universities (with 12 more from academics and research teams) out of 2000 in total. Managements focused on their own specific experiences.

They decried exclusion from the Commonwealth JobKeeper payment, “which resulted in significant losses of staff at a time when universities were pivoting very to new forms of delivery and having to step in to provide social and financial support services to students,” as Uni SA put it.

And they criticised the absence of support for international students, with ANU warning this was a set-back for universities trying to reduce dependence on China. 

But there was not much insight into how the pandemic changed – is still changing – the way we work. Uni Melbourne commented, “many staff (particularly women and part-time workers) noted the benefits of increased flexibility, reduced commutes, and an improved work-life balance. However, many felt a greater sense of disconnection from peers and co-workers.” 

Overall, it was left to the National Tertiary Education Union to sum up their take on the sector-wide impacts, “it was a time marked by excessive workloads, increased stress and psycho-social harms and worries over job security. Higher education staff who kept their jobs did their utmost to pivot to new online teaching and learning platforms and appropriate administrative, academic and pastoral care (while juggling work at home/carer arrangements). This was not always successful.”

It appears universities want to put the pandemic behind them – which was what they did last time. According to Sean Brawley (then Macquarie U) a bare year after the 1919 influenza pandemic, which infected 40 per cent of Australians, it was back to business as usual on campus.

“By the start of the new 1920 academic year there were no public discussions about the impact the pandemic had had on Australian universities over the previous year,” he wrote in Campus Morning Mail, (March 15 2020).

Time should have changed. Universities now position themselves as integral to the fabric of the nation and yet have reflected very little on the sectoral impact of one of the most extensive disruptions of Australian society in living memory.



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