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Let the dreaming spires dream afresh
Slow Views

Let the dreaming spires dream afresh

Friday 24 September 2021

An Oxford head of college presents a manifesto for a transformation of higher education – inspired both by the tough lessons of the pandemic and the potential for exciting change


The Oxford don narrowed his eyes and stroked his chin. “We need to talk about Hobbes.” 

Indeed we do. Covid-19 as a modern Leviathan, choking politics, businesses, society. What would the 17th-century philosopher of authority against the state of nature have made of the daily lockdown trade-offs between liberty and security, between consent and diktat? Might he provide a way of explaining to disgruntled students the real social contract of this pandemic: that the young sacrifice some of their most active years to give the old more of their least active? 

Distancing restrictions might prevent me from having the argument beneath his austere portrait in the dining hall of Hertford College, Oxford. But this was the kind of debate I had relished in returning to the institution where Hobbes – and, three centuries later and without contributing anything to political theory, I – had studied.

The eminent professors on the college’s Covid-19 working group looked back at me, not for the first or last time, with the mystified, slightly perturbed look that eminent Oxford professors have for college heads of house who are still being house-trained (which is to say: all of them). Silence for a moment. Perhaps the Zoom screen where we lived had frozen again. 

A sigh. “Not Hobbes, Principal. Hobs. If we get locked down while the students are all here in residence, their kitchens will need more hobs.” 

Of course. In August 2020 I had started the role, not in the Principal’s lodgings but quarantined with my sons in a (beautifully renovated, oh future applicants) student room; so I knew all about the cooking facilities. I was the only person physically present at my first Oxford dinner, and the only alcohol on the high table had been hand sanitiser. 

So, yes. These past 18 months, for universities as for everyone else, have been more about hobs than Hobbes. About trying to adapt habits and traditions to the limits of a student room and a computer screen. We were building the plane as we flew it. At times – when, for example, I was congratulating new students from the quad as they isolated in their rooms – I felt like Buzz Lightyear. “This isn’t flying, it is falling with style.” 

But mostly I felt the constant, quiet throb of something I had learnt in Number 10 and Beirut to both listen for and listen carefully to: the worst-case scenario. What then to say to the cleaners and porters whom we had marched towards the virus each morning in order to protect the rest of us from it? What to say to parents whose children were in our buildings if not in our care? What to say to the relatives of those we would mourn at Zoom funerals? What to say to the portraits on the wall who had seen pandemics and worse? 

As I ended up concluding at most college meetings, we do not know what comes next. We are not yet through this pandemic, and we haven’t experienced our last lockdown. The foolhardy celebrate our present, incomplete liberation with the misplaced confidence or gung-ho cynicism of – say – those who plaster a big number on the side of a bus. The anxious predict perpetual further waves of the virus, and a world that never feels normal again. Neither is right. 

Meanwhile, the days tick down to another academic year. Like everyone, what the higher education sector most needs right now is to rest, recuperate and talk about something else. But it also needs to start to draw some lessons, however difficult. Any industry that does not recognise the scale of disruption exposed and accelerated by the lockdowns will struggle to emerge from this period of – well – disruption. 

So what has higher education learnt from this year of lockdowns, deep cleans, PCR tests, online lectures and household bubbles?  

First, the good news. The institutions that coped best quietly continued to do three basic things well. They managed to stay true to a vision and a sense of purpose, despite the unpredictability and flux. They retained trust and a sense of collective endeavour and camaraderie, despite the growing sense of distrust in society generally, and periods of estrangement and isolation. They focused on the basics of quiet competence, despite the erratic lurches of government. Vision, trust and competence might not be the hallmarks of some political leaders, but they must remain the fundamentals for those tasked with nurturing a better generation of political leaders. 

It felt to many in the trenches that this was a period of frustration, anxiety and turbulence. It was – and we are yet to understand or respond to the longer-term damage that it will have caused, even if the vaccine prevails in driving down Covid infections to a minimal rate. 

But this was also a period of extraordinary innovation, creativity and resilience. Professors who once took pride in their inability to remember passwords adapted their content for digital learning. Student residences turned themselves into care homes and hotels. Teams adjusted to working together without the vital nuances and visual cues of in-person human contact. There was genuine solidarity. People looked out for each other. As one fresher said to me when I sympathised that they were missing out on the Oxford experience: “Who’s to say this isn’t our Oxford experience?”

But we also learnt some tougher lessons. 

Life changed. The quiet, essential work of building and cultivating a community proved much harder online than offline. As we staggered towards the end of the year, the main request from students and staff was that we not end it with another hesitant lifting of a glass towards the computer screen, another eye-rolling unmuting and another awkward Zoom wave. My virtual principal channel on Slack never really took off. It became harder to get people to keep their cameras on. 

Throughout the year, I repeated again and again to students that we were postponing rather than cancelling events, rituals and rites of passage. I asked them to write on a piece of paper each time they missed out on one, and place it in a postbox outside my office. 

Did we believe that we could recreate those moments of serendipity, those relationships made and unmade, those thousands of interactions, mistakes and observations that contribute to the development of a young person as they experience university? Perhaps we were mourning their loss. Could Evelyn Waugh’s old college really imagine Brideshead Revisited without the spontaneity? 

Are there extraordinary marriages that will never happen, partnerships that will never spark, friendships that will never kindle? Universities were social networks long before Facebook. In an effort to restore a fraction of this interaction, we invited the students to stay for a fortnight at the end of the summer term. But then we had to lock most of them down again in the face of the Delta wave.

Teaching changed. While many adapted to online tutorials with great patience and creativity, there is still a long way to go in ensuring that academics have the skills and infrastructure to create world class digital educational content in an increasingly competitive environment. 

We should now be able to imagine – and to ensure – that a lecture series on Orwell or astrophysics can reach anyone in the world, rather than a handful of masked students in a dusty auditorium. If universities do not lead, quickly and assertively, someone else will. But is it fair to assume that the cleverest people are not only the best teachers but also the best creators of online learning content?

Exams changed. Academics laboured to make accreditation fair in the face of lockdowns that closed the exam halls or made it unfair to test young people. In the end, this meant a levelling up of grades, but, inevitably, not of performance. Can we now finally imagine a world where written exams matter less in our scrutiny of how well a student has really learnt their subject? The assessments of the near future must shift more quickly away from the knowledge a student can memorise to what they can do with it.

A final tough lesson. Despite the noble and valiant efforts of many, online learning exposed and accelerated inequalities. This was the case for students: to put it starkly, you can’t learn as fast if you don’t have the kit, connectivity and working environment. We worked to fill the gaps by providing iPads and ethernet cables. But in my individual meetings with undergraduates throughout the year it was often quickly obvious which of them were facing too many obstacles. We laid on extra support to help with time management, pressure, personal organisation, and well-being.

The pandemic also revealed, more clearly than ever, three other stark and brutal truths about inequality in universities. The reliance of higher education on a precariat of low-paid, underprotected staff, many of whom bore the brunt of keeping universities running; the unsustainability of a student funding model that could not afford to recognise the reality that they weren’t getting what they paid for, and so had to sustain the myth that they were; and the inadequacy of higher education institutions, despite relentless and exhausting work for those dealing directly with student well-being, in responding to the scale and intensity of the mental health pandemic. 

So the lockdowns exposed a greater truth, and one that had already been introducing itself pre-Covid: namely, that an industrial education model created in the 19th Century and updated for the mass market of the 20th Century is no longer delivering in the 21st. 

Education was already at a “sliding doors” moment. The pandemic has given us a reason to change why, how and what we teach and learn, and an opportunity, born of necessity, to make that change. Universities must make their voice heard in that debate, but it must be society-wide, genuinely inclusive, and liberated from vested interests. 

When we emerge from this pandemic, the three great questions for any nation, business, community or individual will also apply to higher education institutions. In a period of rising distrust, are we gaining or losing trust? In a period of rising inequality, are we contributing to it or confronting it? In a period of unprecedented technological change, are we working for the tech or is the tech working for us? Get on the right side of those challenges, and universities will be part of the answer to the urgent survival challenges ahead. 

I suggest there are also three broad areas where higher education must question itself, and be held to account.

First, what is its purpose? What if we dared once again – like Cardinal Newman – to think of a university as an idea not a building? As good ancestors, what should we pass on around our metaphorical camp fire? Can we make our expertise more accessible to those who won’t physically enter a university? Can we make universities a preparation for life, work and citizenship rather than a sabbatical from them? Can education last a lifetime, rather than a learning curve followed after university by a learning valley? Can we be a frontline for a better society? Can we develop a generation that is kind, curious and brave? Or, at least, kinder, more curious and braver than we are? 

Second, how do we ensure we have the right people in place to deliver that vision, and that they are genuinely supported, recognised and rewarded? This starts, of course, with fairer access at all levels to universities. The next enlightenment will only be possible if a broader range of tomorrow’s potential thinkers, pioneers and vaccine scientists have access to the opportunities of higher education. 

It also means honest action to help the academic precariat, liberating teachers to teach rather than merely survive from grant to grant and form to form. And it means a broader reflection on what a university must do to be a good neighbour to its local community and to wider society, nurturing people who are both – to coin a phrase – global citizens and citizens of somewhere. 

Third, do we as a sector have the plans and processes to deliver these aspirations? Are we adapting our provision of mental health for students, staff and academics? Are we preparing to manage the new risks ahead, rather than being blinkered by this pandemic? Are we ready to make the hard choices on student numbers and funding? Are we leading the way – by research, example and activism – on the climate crisis?

Once we start to tackle such questions at root, we will necessarily find ourselves returning to the original purpose of education: which is to say, the means of passing on the best of what we have learnt from our ancestors and a set of survival skills to our descendants. 

We must make learning a preparation for life, citizenship, well-being, and community, not just a set of exam grades that, in theory, will decide our station in life. Instead of teaching the next generation skills that will be automated before they graduate, we must relentlessly show them what makes us creative humans – because that, more than anything else, is what will set them apart from the machines. 

The universities of the future will have to be more accessible, as a resource for all of society, not just a tiny group of selected individuals who study there for three years. They will become hubs for sharing knowledge, not sequestered palaces where it can be hoarded. 

They will offer more programmes for those who choose not to attend full time, allowing them to combine their learning with work and life. Their curricula will develop citizens with the ability to connect ideas, environments, and places, to experience failure and to solve problems.

They must lead the ethical debate about the human values that we want to imprint in technology, and how we live alongside machines. Young people will learn not just a list of the wars that their country won, but how we learned to coexist between those conflicts. They will be taught to think critically, and to collaborate across borders, communities, generations. They will study how to manage their health, emotions, finances and environment. 

In short, humans evolve – the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. 

The point being: technology shifts not just why and what we learn, but how we learn. Digital access will bring extraordinary and unprecedented opportunities to learn, innovate and create together. Education will be more collaborative, flexible and human. We move from passive listening to a much more interactive, participatory approach. Those who prefer to use movement, art or music to help them learn will no longer be told to sit still, stop doodling or take their headphones off. 

The rapid global spread of cheap digital cameras, decent internet access and search engines can unlock the transmission of knowledge on an unprecedented scale. As the OECD’s director for education told me: “I think I’ve seen more social and technological innovation in education in 2020 than in the last six years.” 

Students and teachers in the recent past would have found it very hard to imagine not needing to be physically present in a learning environment, or learning from lecturers on the other side of the planet. Tech also gives us the opportunity to learn not just what we want but when we want: think of all those students over the years who have been forced to sit through classes at the worst time of day for their body clocks. When my eight-year-old wants to learn about hurricanes, he is on YouTube before I can tell him he will be studying them in his geography class in five years. This is a parable of the new flexibility.

Alternatively, the door slides until it is closed, and we find ourselves on the wrong side of it. Learning is the next battleground for Big Tech and disruption of university life is already well under way. There are calls for degree courses to be reduced from three to two years. Code boot camps are now a $250 million a year industry for engineers, and more of their graduates find work than those from equivalent courses at universities. By 2025, universities could lose 30 per cent of their market share to these leaner alternatives. NYU Professor Scott Galloway puts it starkly: “We’re no longer public servants, but luxury goods who are drunk on exclusivity and brag about turning away 80 then 85 then 90 percent of applicants. I think it’s morally corrupt and the reckoning is on its way… Harvard is now a $50,000 streaming platform.”

If we fail to ask ourselves these tough questions, higher education will watch aghast as the next wave of disruption washes over it. It is not hard to envisage: Google qualifications quickly replace many classic university degrees. Accreditation becomes a free for all. Disillusioned and poorly rewarded academics drop out as the challenge of combining meaningful research with quality teaching becomes harder and harder to pull off.

Students take their money elsewhere, while higher education doggedly persists in its emphasis upon classic academic knowledge rather than values and skills. The league tables that compare education quality continue to highlight the wrong things: conventional exam results. 

Mesmerised by international rankings, comparative exam performance and the increasingly desperate pursuit of funding, administrators narrow the range of what students study. Selection remains rooted in academic performance rather than potential. Technology continues to increase the workload of academics instead of freeing them for groundbreaking research and innovative pedagogy. The UK’s natural strengths in the sector will be eroded by competition, lack of agility and, with the growing global perception that our government is erratic, a downgrading of the UK’s treble A rating for competence. 

In this scenario, we will see expertise, liberty of thought and creativity challenged and marginalised. We will become sidetracked by culture wars. We will reproduce, deepen and increase social and economic inequality. Most young people will enjoy enhanced access to information – but so will machines. Absent a revolution in the way we practise higher education, most undergraduates on the planet will continue to learn the wrong things in the wrong ways. We will fail to spark the wonder of learning. 

The blurring of the lines between university, work and life during the 2020/21 lockdowns brought home to millions that something had to change, and shone a powerful light upon the extent to which our current global education system is inefficient and unfair. But this is not just about justice and equality. It is about survival. 

The risk is that the kids who should be curing cancer, writing the new social contract or discovering the next energy source won’t do those things. Instead, they will vote for future Trumps, who, after a while, will stop bothering to hold elections. We will face a century of massive migration, extremism, conflict and environmental destruction.  

That escalated fast. 

Yet history shows that it does escalate fast. And perhaps, amid all the known unknowns, we can perceive this as something tangible that we should listen for and listen to: the worst-case scenario. 

Change is not easy. As in wider society, many in universities already feel overwhelmed, insecure, anxious about the future. But that sense of fragility is why this effort matters so much. 

We cannot wait for politicians to lead us: that is surely a major lesson of this era of pandemic and polarisation. Most leaders I’ve worked with are finding it harder to be strategic, harder to accrue the trust they need to respond to the challenges they face, harder to form reliable alliances. 

This is partly because their education has failed them, too. At a moment when we need stronger leadership, it is becoming harder to lead. We are still building the driverless car, but we have achieved a driverless world. 

To change education, we’re often told, we have to change the politics. But education is upstream politics, upstream diplomacy. To change the politics, we have to change education.

Even so, amid all this churn, I will admit to an irreducible sense of optimism. The generation currently in education have a much more intuitive understanding than any before them of how to adapt and transform their learning, and to identify new gaps and opportunities for where technology can help renew education in the future. 

These young people will liberate themselves to unleash the ingenuity and creativity that they know they need to navigate the challenges ahead. They will be armed with a sense of purpose, and the agency and activism of the smartphone. Our role as their teachers is to be humble about where we have failed, and to help them decide how and where to focus their energy. Perhaps our role as good ancestors is simply to give them the space and tools to find their way. We were the future once. Next year, my college will pioneer a class that teaches them survival skills of the head, hand and heart. 

This transformation of why, how and what we learn will not be straightforward. But I hope that the Oxford professor battling to create space on the curriculum for a global view of history can take heart from the art teacher battling to show that mastering creativity is not just an after-school painting club. 

The headteacher convincing parents that mindfulness helps academic success can take heart from the tech entrepreneur testing how play develops brain power. The business leader, frustrated that his employees aren’t equipped with the right problem-solving skills, can draw encouragement from the YouTube campaigner making popular videos on why education isn’t working. The UN official, exhausted by trying to make it easier for refugees to pass through multiple education systems, can be energised by the students demanding to be taught global competencies rather than the list of wars that their country won.

Only if more humans learn the right things in the right way can we meet the challenge of the 21st Century: how to create more winners from globalisation and technological change, while better protecting those left behind. 

Or, because we are too tired, distracted or disillusioned, we settle for something else. “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Perhaps Thomas Hobbes had something to say to us after all.

Tom Fletcher is principal of Hertford College, Oxford, a former UK ambassador and author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age