A slow science manifesto for a new praxis in higher education in post-corona times
To all rectors, managing directors, funding bodies, and governments
The coronavirus pandemic, and the measures that are being taken to stop this pandemic, are firmly affecting our lives. Academia is heavily affected as well by the corona crisis, even though maybe less visibly, as (Belgian) higher education continued their activities. University (college) campuses across Belgium are feeling the impact of the corona crisis and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The seeming business-as-usual, albeit online and through telework, nonetheless obscures an invisible crisis that is taking place in Belgian higher education at the moment. All research labs, except the ones working on COVID-19, had to stop their activities and field work became impossible. Libraries and archives, which play a central role in research and learning, are closed. Regardless of our position as students, technical and support staff, lecturers, or researchers, many of us are struggling. From financial uncertainty to increased workload, precarious housing, unexpected care of children and relatives, mental health struggles, physical illness, separation from family and friends, or suffering the loss of loved ones we are all affected by (a combination of) these problems. Their impact falls disproportionately on young researchers with short term contracts and the most precarious students and workers.
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Our universities and colleges have not remained blind to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on staff and students’ lives. They have sent out messages of gratitude and support for everyone’s dedication, resilience and quick adaptivity to the situation. Nonetheless, all universities have chosen to continue and maintain their activities, stay as fully functioning as possible, massively shifting to telework, -teaching and -study – thus almost forcefully demanding from both staff and students to be resilient and adaptive. Even though we appreciate the increasing emphasis on self-care and mental health in universities’ discourses, and some universities have even suggested to be ‘mild’ and ‘lenient’ while ‘non-essential tasks’ could be postponed, we also notice that this puts additional pressure on individual staff, researchers and students if measures to back up this ‘mildness’ remain absent. Not only does this lead to ad hoc decision making, it also fails to acknowledge the differential power positions from which we study or work.
Pre-corona academia was already characterized by a range of intersectional inequalities (paid staff vs un(der)paid or even outsourced staff, full-time vs part-time, caring obligations or not, racism, fixed and temporary contracts, international mobility rights or not, etc…); the current pandemic exacerbates structural inequalities which exist along gendered, racialized, classed, abled, heteronormative and colonial lines, making a step backward for equity. Moreover, crisis management sometimes leads to top-down decision making, as such jeopardizing any democratic decision-process about the short and long term future of (Belgian) higher education.
Attached to this open letter, we provide an overview of the effects of the corona pandemic on different groups within the university, and the specific needs we are facing. We urge governments, universities and funding agencies to address the various concerns and take actions to alleviate pressure on the short and long term. These needs can be summarized as follows:
- In the short term, we need additional financial resources. As our government and the European Commission are now setting up funding programs to salvage the economy, higher education should not be left out. Extensions of short terms contracts, especially for the less privileged among us, should be immediately provided. Financial help, like rent waivers, should be organized for precarious students losing their income. Additional resources need to be made available to alleviate the extremely increased workload in the sector, especially given the preexisting abundance of workload in academia. On a longer term, we need to improve the labour conditions of all staff within our universities, while also re-imagining the competitive allocation mechanism on which academic resources are often based.
- We need to change evaluation criteria for research and teaching. In the short term, doctoral schools, funding bodies, and universities need to take into account the exceptional times in which we have been working and studying, by extending deadlines and explicitly recognizing the disruption caused by the pandemic in their evaluation processes. On a longer term, evaluation, promotion, and hiring practices need to allow for and value the time needed for reproductive labour and caring tasks.
- Mental health and workload: on a short term universities have to implement plans for mental health and adapt the output expectations and internal deadlines, both for students and workers. In the longer run, governments and universities need to take seriously the severe mental health issues existing in academia and take actions to prevent the causes (decrease of structural workload, more support, less competition and pressure, etc.).
- Governments, universities and funding agencies should quickly open a discussion to coordinate their actions in order to implement structural collective measures to alleviate the effects of this crisis. This dialogue should also take place within each university including all democratic platforms and representations to avoid top down decision making. This would ensure that all workers and students in need will receive adequate and active support from their institutions and that all the relevant information is accessible in a centralized way. In the longer term and beyond the corona crisis, the existence of such coordination would be highly beneficial.
A crisis such as the pandemic we are experiencing not only poses many challenges, but also provides us with opportunities. Rather than taking haphazard decisions, we now have an opportunity to open a broad discussion about what the university is, what we think it should be, and how to move forward to that goal. What can a university look like that values education and research as essential public goods? How can we envision universities where reproductive labour and care work can be combined with academic work, and even be valued? How can we decrease structural inequalities, within society and within our university campuses? We need to collectively imagine a better path forward, one that is consistent with, and moves toward, the kind of university we want for students’ education, for quality research, for good jobs, for a thriving campus community, and for a vibrant democracy.
Here you can find the full manifesto in which we list in detail the different issues people in higher education are facing due to the consequences of the corona measures: