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Canberra faculty has coped with crisis by ‘putting people first’


University of Canberra’s pandemic response has emphasised support and flexibility, festival event hears

Coping successfully with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on research centres requires a focus on individual needs, a University of Canberra seminar has been told.

David Nolan, an associate professor of communication and media studies at the university, told a session on 10 November that “the Covid-19 pandemic has presented all of us with challenges in conducting our research that we really couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of the year”.

Everything from project planning to movement around the country and access to campus has been affected, he said, while individuals are “really just staying afloat in what have been really difficult times for us and our loved ones”. Staff have learned “the need to continue to put the welfare of our people and our needs front and centre and look after each other”, Nolan said.

The seminar, which focused on the effects of Covid-19 on the arts and design faculty’s work, was part of the faculty’s annual research festival.

Sora Park, associate dean of research in the faculty, said there had been unexpected benefits of the forced switch to online teaching. Although around a third of the faculty’s 100 ‘higher degree by research’ students had been forced to take some kind of leave, overall participation in seminars had spiked once people no longer had to turn up in person, she said.

During 2020, the faculty has run seven seminar days, compared with “usually about four or five”, and “the attendance is much higher than the offline ones. So we get 50 to 60 people listening…and that has the effect of exposure to other disciplines.” At the same time, there has been a surge in applications to begin PhDs, and Canberra is trialling a system to “onboard” new research students who are still overseas until they are able to enter Australia. “So our researchers are struggling, but they are persevering and thriving.”

Erica Walls-Nichols, Canberra’s manager of policy and programmes for graduate research, said the research office had needed to field questions from researchers about what to do, while having little idea of what the correct response was and what government regulations allowed. “It was quite a time for us in the graduate research office…Almost immediately our graduate researchers came to us for advice and at the beginning of this experience we just didn’t know.”

Helping international students, who had complex visa issues or were returning home, had been particularly challenging, Walls-Nichols said.

One PhD student told the seminar that as well as juggling her research work, which needed to be reframed because in-person interviews were impossible, she was teaching, parenting and dealing with “toxic positivity”, such as people telling her that the lockdown would give her time to write her thesis.

Nolan’s own research project on Indigenous media use, funded by the Australian Research Council, was upended when a host organisation was unable to keep working with his team. He said he had learned to be flexible: “‘Get to the end of this year’ has been the mantra.”

“Work with your partners…but also appreciate that they are going through much the same challenges as you are.”

The pandemic has been difficult not only for researchers “but also for the communities that we’re connected with”, he said. “Sometimes life is a bit bigger than our work lives and we need to give ourselves a bit of a break.”