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University and researcher groups set out implications of Covid-19

Pandemic may cause ‘fundamental cultural shift’ in European higher education, bringing permanent changes

Organisations representing young researchers and universities have published updates setting out areas of ongoing concern stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, and potential future developments that need to be planned for.

In a paper published on 6 July, the Young European Research Universities Network said the crisis had forced higher education institutions to “swiftly change their status quo”, and it explored how these changes might pan out.

The pandemic has “brought to light the rigidity of our current higher education system, a rigidity we are now confronted with and which will inevitably have to change as a consequence of current or future lockdowns”, said Yerun secretary-general Silvia Gómez Recio and strategic communications and policy officer Chiara Colella.

They listed the potential impacts of three scenarios: a return to the pre-pandemic normal; further waves of Covid-19 arriving after 2020 and causing some lasting changes for universities; and the pandemic permanently changing higher education.

The second scenario would require universities to adapt their educational experience to “compensate the loss or decrease of the campus experience”, Gómez Recio and Colella predicted. In addition, they said people who combined research and teaching may have less time for research because they would have to spend more time on preparing remote lessons.

Some changes may prove beneficial for students, according to the authors. For instance, virtual methods of teaching and evaluation might improve, and students may have more choice over their activities, including on-site and digital options.

In the third and most extreme scenario, the pandemic would cause universities to “radically transform the way in which they offer teaching, learning, international mobilities and collaborations, hence leading a fundamental cultural shift”. Interdisciplinarity would gain ground because of the need to solve complex societal problems, blended and hybrid learning would become the norm, and open data and shared research infrastructure would facilitate digital learning and research.

Gómez Recio and Colella said there were choppy waters ahead for higher education but underscored that institutions should embrace the call to adapt, taking opportunities to develop their governance, increase collaboration and provide better support for researchers.

In a separate statement published on 6 July, Eurodoc, the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, called for a post-pandemic plan for early-career researchers. The group cited numerous issues for doctoral candidates, who they said had been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

“In the switch towards remote working and online teaching, higher education institutions are focused on students and researchers holding permanent contracts, with doctoral candidates being sometimes left behind,” Eurodoc said. It cited issues such as neglect from supervisors, funding cuts and travel restrictions that prevented PhD students from conducting research or defending their theses, and “grim” career prospects.

“All the issues…are common to most of the countries of the EU, are strictly intertwined and need to be addressed together,” Eurodoc said.