Jeff Kennedy and Karoline Leitgeb
The enduring impacts that university responses to the Covid-19 pandemic will have on higher education has not escaped attention. Decisions on new and pre-existing issues like teaching methods, job security, and even campus design promise to leave lasting marks on institutions and those who learn and work in them. What should not be overlooked amid conversation about what is decided, however, is the fact that how we decide what to do in the face of this ongoing public health crisis—and who we involve—will also leave its own legacy in the post-pandemic university.
An inward turn among university decision-makers, whether inspired by a good faith belief that crises require centralized leadership or something more opportunistic, offers one possible legacy. University communities, more than inheriting an institution not of their own making, would themselves be shaped through the experience of exclusion: emerging unchanged from an otherwise potentially transformative opportunity for collective action, identities shaped by a clear message that, despite the shared significance of the problem, they were not needed. What clearer way could we reinforce consumer identities, for instance, than to exclude students from the process and sell them its results through carefully crafted messaging?
Instead, the pandemic might prompt a serious, creative, and proportionate reflection on how universities could meaningfully involve their communities in collective problem-solving. This promises an alternative legacy: institutions reaping the benefits of collective wisdom, cultivated capacities among staff and students, and even new structures of participation. Indeed, reflections on how best to engage the university community may well push us to move beyond existing means of involvement. Fortunately, the liminality of the pandemic university presents an ideal opportunity to think innovatively about the ways we approach shared problems.
Along these lines, a recent experiment in deliberative democracy at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Law has piloted a more creative approach to decision-making that may spark a more democratic legacy in the post-pandemic university. The School’s Students’ Jury on Pandemic Learning saw students hear from stakeholders and experts, deliberate, and make recommendations to leadership on how the School should approach legal education this coming year. In doing so, the pilot project took inspiration from Citizens’ Assemblies, Citizens’ Juries and other “deliberative mini-publics” that offer tested models for overcoming common political challenges—mistrust, misinformation, polarisation, rhetoric—while capitalizing on the potential contributions of ordinary citizens. National Citizens’ Assemblies on the climate crisis, commissioned by both the UK House of Commons and Scottish Parliament, are recent examples, though the role of Irish mini-publics in helping bring about the legalisation of same sex marriage and the liberalisation of abortion are notable illustrations of the potential impact of deliberative approaches.
The Students’ Jury brought these democratic innovations into the university. Twelve undergraduate law students were selected by democratic lottery—a process of stratified random selection—to ensure that the group was a descriptively representative microcosm of the student body more broadly: six male and six female students, and proportionately reflecting student diversity in terms of year, specialism, disability, racialization, and domestic or overseas fee status. It also ensured subtler forms of diversity in terms of experience and personality. Whereas elections attract the usual cast of more confident or ambitious students, a lottery includes them only in their proportion, and elevates the voices of those who would not typically put themselves forward. Students that are less sure, more introverted, prefer to listen, or suffer from social anxieties have important contributions to make and, as we saw, are willing to serve their university community when called upon. Twelve invitations were sent. Twelve were accepted.
Over the course of two weeks in March 2021, the Jury shared their own experiences, learned about the issues, and deliberated about future directions. Through various panels, jurors heard from both stakeholders within the University and experts from outside about their experiences and expertise relevant to the coming year. This meant that the Jury was able to hear firsthand about the School’s constraints within the broader university, the challenges for academic and administrative staff, and experiences at other law schools which took a different approach to pandemic learning. So too did the Jury hear from leading thinkers on the digitalization of higher education, national presidents of both the staff and student unions, an epidemiologist, and a representative from Independent Sage. Whereas university surveys ask students for isolated, top-of-the-head views on the basis of limited information, the Students’ Jury worked to solicit informed views, tested in deliberations with a diversity of perspectives.
In all of this, the Students’ Jury relied heavily on partners outside the university, including organizations like Democratic Society and the Sortition Foundation, both of which were involved in the parliamentary Citizens’ Assemblies on climate. Not only did this ensure independent juror selection and facilitation for deliberation processes—important given institutional agendas, the power dynamics built into staff-student relationships, and entrenched small-group “tutorial” norms—it also introduced a wealth of experience on the art of collective decision-making.
In the end, the Jury’s Final Report includes 13 thoughtful, collective recommendations for pandemic learning in the coming year, unpacked with proposed supporting actions and explanations as to why each recommendation is important to students. Recommendations tackle a wide range of issues, including the return to in-person teaching, the digital divide, areas for further support, and the need for both transparency and student inclusion in decision making. They include both the practical and aspirational, though no less achievable. While an exercise in student input, the report is clearly oriented toward a common good, recognizing that students’ and staff’s fates are intertwined, and intervening as well on staff workloads and support. In all, it evidences the kind of valuable contributions students can make to university decision-making and merits wide readership.
At present, the full legacy of this pilot project remains to be seen, although hints are visible. The report has been widely distributed, warmly received, and its findings have fuelled organic staff advocacy. While not binding, the fact that the grassroots process was endorsed by leadership and included a good faith commitment to consider its outputs has been important. In the coming weeks and months, decisions made about the next academic year will reveal its ultimate influence. But whatever that may be, the potential legacies of the approach go beyond its contributions to better and more legitimate decisions. Democratic experimentation also provides a means of developing individual and institutional capacities and building—or disrupting—democratic norms within the university community.
Certainly, democratic innovation within the university can effectively realize universities’ aspirations to develop students as citizens of their institutions and beyond. Interviews with student jurors following the process indicated that they felt shaped by their participation. Many felt less like customers and more like community members, better equipped with deliberative capacities, more oriented toward a common good, and more confident to participate in future decision-making. Yet, to think of the citizen-forming effects of university democracy only in terms of student development is too limited, even patronising. The kind of politics that we cultivate within and through the university has just as much to do with cultivating staff capacities and disposition. Sharing power, relinquishing some control, and involving others may not always come naturally when academia privileges knowing the answer and often emphasises solitary work, academic freedom, and creative control. In this respect, stepping back and helping craft platforms for others, not knowing what they will use it to say, has been as much an exercise in democratic capacity-building as direct participation was.
This project will leave behind a variety of other lessons for how to facilitate democracy in the university context, some through formal research and others through more tacit learning. Notably, it has demonstrated the value of looking beyond the School walls, especially to emerging participatory processes and collaboration with the individuals and organizations who drive them. In a small but significant way, the project will also leave behind a material legacy, with residual funding going to establish a “School of Law Democracy Fund”. But perhaps most importantly, we have seen that these kinds of projects can validate experimentation and open up possibilities beyond the status quo. The Jury’s report recommended further and more varied forms of student participation, including annual continuation of the Jury model. The fact that academic staff have also since proposed topics for other Students’ Juries suggests that the project has at least partially succeeded in widening the School’s collective imagination of what student participation might look like. This expansion of what is possible for university democracy should continue beyond lotteries and advisory mini-publics, and the present crisis is an opportunity to experiment with other, and more empowered, democratic institutions and processes. Apparent budget constraints and difficult decisions, for instance, might be an opportunity to identify collective priorities through Participatory Budgeting. Whatever the process used, all of this requires both good faith and institutional support: time, resources, and energy. Nonetheless, university communities need to prioritize democracy and invest in themselves, not just for the sake of navigating the pandemic, but for who we will be on the other side.
Dr Jeffrey Kennedy is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Criminal Law at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Law and one of the two lead organizers of the Students’ Jury on Pandemic Learning.
Karoline Leitgeb is entering her final year of studying Law and Politics at Queen Mary University of London’s Schools of Law and Politics and International Relations. She served as the lead student organiser of the Students’ Jury.