Building the post-pandemic university: countering inequalities with an ethics of care

Laura Czerniewicz

Paper in press, by Laura Czerniewicz*, Najma Agherdien, Johan Badenhorst, Dina Zoe Belluigi,  Tracey Chambers, Muntuwenkosi Chili, Magriet de Villiers, Alan Felix, Daniela Gachago, Craig Gokhale, Eunice Ivala, Neil Kramm, Matete Madiba, Gitanjali Mistri, Emmanuel Mgqwashu, Nicola Pallitt, Paul Prinsloo, Kelly Solomon,  Sonja Strydom, Mike Swanepoel,  Faiq Waghid, Gerrit Wissing.

By now, concerns about how equity and inequality are playing out in the ‘pivot’ to remote teaching and learning are common in the press and most mainstream political and policy discourses. But early on, questions about the risks to equity and the related responses to such risks within institutions of higher education were being raised. Of these, which concerns for the future post-pandemic persist? 

As teaching and learning professionals and academics from 15 diverse universities in South Africa, we deliberated through collective reflection what we were experiencing, observing, designing and trying to mitigate in Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning (ERTL). Collecting our reflections and raising critical concerns, we collated these in May 2020 during the first semester of the academic year in South Africa, as the country entered a sudden State of Disaster with severe lockdown restrictions. Nine themes emerged from our reflective narratives that provide insight, from the diverse and unequal positions we found ourselves in, into the current status of responses to Covid-19 with regard to teaching and learning through an equity lens.

We found a useful conceptual lens to articulate the non-linear and contemporaneous forms of inequality which were exposed in the stratified higher education system, in Therborn’s  conceptualisations of ‘vital’, ‘resource’ and ‘existential’ inequality. Highly relevant when the life chances of students are cruelly diminished by the pandemic, vital inequality refers to ‘life chances’, and indeed to survival rates. Under the guise of #FeesMustFall, resource inequalities in recent years have been at the forefront of the sector. During the pandemic, they were reasserted as the unsurprising focus of attention because of immediately evident digital divides. Also relevant is existential inequality,  where the ‘denial of equal recognition and respect [is]… a potent source of humiliations’

Nationally and globally, the pandemic has put equity and inequality indisputably on the higher education agenda and it has become evident, as so many have observed, that nothing remains business as usual. In contrast to the predatory entrepreneurial hype of Covid-19 EdTech companies’ innovation speak, we observed the moment as creating possibilities for genuine equity-focused innovation, policymaking, provision and pedagogy. Providing the conditions for policy reformulations, it has also entrenched new practices which foreground flexible and equitable forms of provision. Numerous examples of extraordinary resilience, networks and, at times, unexpected alliances of collaboration and support, have emerged. These include inspiring creativity, and examples of technology used for equity purposes and moments of optimism. 

In the face of terrible loss and the serious risk of educational life chances with concurrent inequalities (vital, resource and existential), there are glimmerings of hope. We have been  heartened by the fundamental concern for the well-being of all who people higher education, and the resilience to continue despite the overwhelming challenges and imperfections of what appears to be ‘the edge of chaos’. Rather than constructing hero narratives of the individuals who exhibited stamina, commitment and sacrifice, we consider the ethics underpinning such social relations while asking questions about sustainability and systemic responsibilities as central to the duty of public care of higher education.

It has become clear to us that the teaching and learning project of the university is relational. Complex problems cannot be effectively solved by one autonomous component. Living Tronto’s  metaphor, we are entangled in a complex web of relations. What we have learnt is that for this to be a caring web of relationship, no one person or group can be solely responsible for decision-making. Across the parties, levels of universities and of society, contributions are required for discussion on caring needs and how they should be met . It is only by taking all stakeholders into consideration that ethical and caring conditions can be created. However, such deliberations and negotiations need time and trust, two resources that have been scarce in these times of crisis and in the terrain of historic and current inequalities in the country. 

Ethical practices come down to everyday decisions of care in caring relationships, offering intersecting, interwoven deliberations that are in some ways are an ethical praxis. What we have seen repeatedly in the recent past, is that if institutional care and support are not in place, educators and learning professionals step in to form relationships and communities of practice to facilitate self-care and care for others ‒ to be both caregivers and care receivers. Within and across the institutions, staff in close collaboration with students and communities, have found and created ways to engage in an ethic of care – listening and responding to the needs of all parties involved. Through these instances and engagements, we have found innovative and creative ways of dealing with the crisis thus far. In contrast to the individualistic profit-motivated notions of care punted as educational remedies, this “is a thing uncountable, incalculable, priceless 

During this period, fields of practice and scholarship, which previously intersected far less than one would have imagined, have been now thrust together. Historically, questions of access to and success in education were the purview of ‘academic development’, while the digital divide and digital inequalities fell in the parallel realm of ‘educational technology’. The scholarship has drawn on different theoretical sources, and the practice has been supported institutionally in different ways, either centrally or distributed. With ERTL, these separations were eroded, with Student Affairs thrown into the mix as students demand that #NoStudentIsLeftBehind. Further erosion occurred between the boundaries between higher education institutions from the society and structural inequalities in which they are situated. As one of the contributors articulates in this paper, we are teaching from within the community we are living in right now.

What we have learnt is that the nexus of these transformational issues requires new ways of seeing, not unseeing and engaging with what needs to remain visible. This is where the critical hope lies. The pandemic has been an MRI exposing the social bones , an X-ray making it possible “to see all the broken places” . Thus our reflections of ERTL in this paper illuminate multiple and co-existing forms of inequality in higher education. While this might seem hopeless at times, recognising care as repair embraces the notion that “when people [ and indeed systems] confront their failures, they have the opportunity to mend them”. Clear consideration of the complex shape of the terrain and its substrata is essential, as is resistance. Harder to grow, yet fundamental, are the seeds of community, collaboration and commitment which can restore and recreate a deeply damaged sector.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Professor Laura Czerniewicz ( director of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching will present the reflections of and by learning and teaching professionals and academics from 15 of the 27 South African universities.

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