Though it is too early to begin to speculate what the mid and long term effects that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis will have on our universities, or for that matter, on all the major public sectors, and society as a whole, I think we can be certain, it will not be “business as usual.”
If this crisis has done nothing else, it has reminded us all of the importance of caring for each other and for working collectively and of NOT allowing our lives to be determined by a selfish me culture where personal achievement becomes the governing principle. I am reminded of an African proverb that is so precinct at this time of stress, distress but hopefully of reflection and introspection. It goes something like this: “If you want to go fast, then go alone, but if you want to go far, then go together.”
For the past 30 years or so, universities across the world have become transformed from public institutions to private businesses, where students have become turned into customers, and academics into managers, administrators and financial speculators.
An article by a group of activist academics entitled “After the pandemic: re-imagining our universities“, offers some insights into what that might be, such as developing ‘new methods of teaching and research with communities beyond our disciplines and classrooms’ and to ‘reclaim the trust and democratic authority to steer our institutions in the directions we need to go, whether that is tackling climate change or soaring inequality’.
For me a more fundamental starting point would be to work from the premise that access to good quality higher education is a human right, and not privilege. That the social good provided by education is far more important than the commercial aspects. That we should not see education as a business, but an essential public service that is no different to access to health care, housing, transport, clean water and healthy nutrition.
We need to move away from the obsession with return on investment as if it were some kind of commodity that can be exchanged for financial gain or loss. This kind of thinking, what was massively accelerated by the introduction of large student fees and a debt culture, is beginning to haunt not only governments, but all of those who work in the system.
At the moment it is difficult to see what good the novel coronavirus crisis will have for humanity, but, perhaps, if nothing else, it has put us all in the same boat, enables us to share the same anxieties, and the terrible effects of isolation and uncertainty. For just a brief moment, we have all become part of what Guy Standing termed the ‘Precariat’ to describe a ‘social class formed by people suffering from precarity or a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare’.
And so, in our moment of precarious togetherness, let us discover a new purpose for building collective co-operative social life. This will need us to establish a new bold purpose for education, which becomes essentially about nourishing the mind and stimulating the human spirit towards a more caring world, where human activity is orientated away from exploiting to nurturing human and natural resources.
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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