Reflections on the challenges facing academia in times of COVID-19

I have the luck to be facing the COVID-19 upheaval in academia from a comfortable position, holed up in a nice house, with my family and a comfy home office. I could easily have ended up stuck far away from my family had the shutters come down a week earlier, so my experience could have been very different.

Plus, I spent the bulk of the last 5 years working from home anyway, so personally the new normal is not that different from the old normal. I also have a vantage point which allows me to see how two different national systems (Denmark and the UK) react to the same shock.

My views on UK academia and the challenges it was facing even before the COVID-19 tsunami hit are public. The crisis has accelerated the entropy in the system and pushed the sector faster to the abyss than I had expected. At the same time it provides the sector with the perfect external excuse to ask for a bailout, and indeed some have already put the cap in their hand.

If the sector finances were wobbly before the crisis, the current lockdown leading to reduced conference/event income or the need to reimburse students for their accommodation fees during the lockdown. By itself this will be enough to drive some universities to the wall. And we're yet to see the full impact of recruitment for the next academic year. Will students want to go to university? And if so will they stay at home instead of holing up in halls? Or will it the next year have to be delivered online and thus deprive universities of accommodation and retail income?

Even the simple uncertainty on the run up to the next academic year will probably be enough to sink the finances of more universities. And this is even before we start musing about the financing contracts they got into to build all those new halls as these tend to include commitments on occupation rates. Oh, the joys of a good public-private partnership.

If universities do go under, I posit most of the blame lays at the feet of the financial excesses on the run up to 2020. And I don't believe they're too big to fail or else we will be perpetuating the moral hazard risk in the sector. As such, consolidation and creative destruction would do good for the sector on the long run. Yes, it will mean a lot of pain in the short term with a number of institutions closing down and large numbers of staff being made redundant. I'm not oblivious to that but also feel the system cannot go on as it has thus far.

Do not waste a good crisis

In the preceding paragraph I highlighted the word creative as associated to destruction. This crisis provides an opportunity for creative thinking of what could/should change in the sector. Albert provided a great overview of the problems facing universities and this one struck a chord with me:


This is so true it is not even funny. I had a ringside seat on my previous department as it scaled up in size and complexity where it followed the obvious path of piling on committees and complex decision-making structures, increasing the 'citizenship' (read: administration/bureaucracy) load significantly with every change. As an example, I was asked to serve in the Learning and Teaching Committee and in our first meeting we were 8. The first task was to consider who else needed to be part of said committee. By the time I left it the mailing list had 30+ members. The opportunity costs associated with this approach to 'citizenship' are enormous and not accounted properly. Worse, where accounted for in promotion criteria they create the perverse incentive of people piling on this type of work to get promoted.

The fundamental problem here is obviously one of incentives. Universities created the wrong incentives to reward this type of work at the expense of the two core competencies they should have: teaching and research. 'Citizenship' is a means to an end and not an end in itself as it sometimes seems to be in UK universities.

As the day does not magically expand beyond its usual 24 hours, the creation of this third leg of the academic stool is done at the expense of the other two or personal life. In my view, this is one of the leading causes of overwork in British academia.

As 'service' is not free or a core objective of a University, it should be limited to the essential. It hasn't and the responsibility for that is exclusively internal, that is, the administration of universities and, yes, academics too.

That is probably a key difference between Danish and British academia. In Denmark, your total of yearly hours is calculated and all the work that is valued by your employer tallied up with research getting around a third and the other two soaking up the rest together. Since all those admin and teaching activities are tallied up it is impossible for your workload to increase beyond what you have been contracted to do. And if you do work beyond what was contracted, that gets tallied up and can be used further down the line to have a sabbatical for example. Work to contract is the norm and not a sign of relationship breakdown. In this bargain, I for one take the constancy of certainty over the fortune of flexibility.

This has the added value of making the system transparent and quite visible making it harder (though probably not impossible) for passengers to hide behind those pulling the cart. Sunlight is the best disinfectant as they say.

As for the UK, I have said jokingly before the crisis that Universities could work just fine with half their committees and with half of the membership in the remaining ones. The COVID-19 crisis provides with the perfect setting to test that heretical idea.

Oh conferences, where art thou?

Albert also muses on his post about the impact on conferences and dissemination of research. Again, I'm on the record with strong reservations about most (though not all) conferences. In general, there are today better ways to disseminate information and knowledge than shoving a bunch of people in the same room. Something that conferences are great for though is for pressing the flesh, but that is certainly out of the picture for the rest of the year and probably 2021 as well. Overall, I think we will be better off without all those commitments in our agenda, even though personally I will miss the academic bug picking those events provide me with.


Nay a day had passed from the Government instituting the lockdown and the sacrosanct Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise had been postponed 'until further notice'. When time and bandwidth are limited what is superfluous should be made to go and in the UK that meant kicking REF into the long grass. It effectively shows how important it actually isn't. It is a pointless navel gazing exercise which, in my discipline at least, is prone to subjectivity ('you will be lucky if you have a specialist in your field assessing your papers'). I cannot say I have done poorly in the REF with six 3* papers in as many years, but I steadfastly refused to optimize my research output for REF purposes or else I would be stuck in British academia for the rest of my career.

Now that there is no time (or much income) associated with REF, is the opportunity to make do with that pointless exercise altogether. Just take it to the farm, please.*

Who covers the costs of working from home?

Another key difference between my current experience and colleagues in the UK has to do with help for working from home. My department at CBS we are all given laptops when we start working (mine is delayed due to the virus of course) so all my colleagues can indeed work from home. Plus, CBS also pays for your internet access cost if you live in Denmark.

What support have UK universities given to their staff to work from home? It is all fine and dandy to ask people to keep on working from home, but not really so if you are asking them to also provide equipment, internet, lighting and heating costs. I know some have tried to buy laptops recently (as so many others of course) or told staff to take their office desktop computers home, but that's not really a solution. Now, if *only* the powers that be wouldn't assume an academic work can (or should) only be done at their office desk...

It is tempting to take the current crisis and simply apply our existing bias and claim it proves our pre-existing view of the world.  I'm certainly not immune to it but hope this post provides some food for thought for colleagues out there.

*I have no horse in the REF game since I'm out of the UK and my wife is not on a research track.