Hope and Hopelessness in the Post-Pandemic University

Áine Mahon

Speaking last summer at an academic conference on the theme of ‘Academic Freedom’, President Michael D. Higgins argued that we now exist at a ‘perilous juncture’ in the history of the academy. ‘Universities, as sites, sources, and experiences of learning, have, for several decades now, been under attack from a variety of sources’, he argued. ‘They have suffered an attrition of range and depth, loss of interdisciplinary exchange, leading in too many cases to a degradation of the very scholarship and teaching for which they were established’. 

In his compelling commentary, President Higgins unites a number of metaphors that have been central to discussions about the university in recent years. Related discourses of crisis, corrosion, and attack have characterised critical university studies since their very inception and have gained increasing impetus in our pandemic or post-pandemic moment. Academics in this context have written influentially of ‘the toxic university’, ‘the hopeless university’, ‘the university in ruins’, ‘the assault on universities’, ‘whackademia’, ‘the death of the public university’ and – in the most apocalyptic terms – of ‘the killing of thinking’. President Higgins falls short of claiming that the time of the university is completely over but he does speculate on whether the great universities of the present and past might become mere tourist attractions of the future. ‘I often wonder, as tourists tramp through the cloisters of abbeys and are told of where vespers were sung, will we have tales of where lectures were once given, disputations, brilliant expositions encountered, or books consulted?’ 

Of course, discourses of toxicity or death imagine Higher Education as in important senses beyond reform; what is needed on this analysis is outright abolition. Such is the compelling argument of Richard Hall (Professor of Education and Technology at De Montfort University in the UK) who foregrounds the hopelessness of the post-pandemic university and the need to face up to its reality as ‘anxiety machine’. On this understanding, the virus has not so much destroyed the humanity of academic work but exposed how this labour has always been individualized and atomized. Covid-19 has exposed already-existent discriminations and prejudices, inflamed current social inequalities, and created ‘a new historical and material terrain of struggle’. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the spaces of education, where battlelines have always been drawn between those who are insulated from and those who are vulnerable to crisis.

Taking all these onslaughts into account, Hall argues that the contemporary university is ‘a space devoid of hope’. When combined with financial and viral crises of a global and unprecedented scale, institutional imperatives of competition, managerialism, productivity, and efficiency have given way to individual experiences of alienation, anxiety, and ‘a pathology of powerlessness’. There is little space on this analysis for lofty rhetoric re revitalised possibilities for public or civic education. Rather, in Hall’s own words, the virus has underscored the ‘claustrophobic nature’ of our practices ‘and how our lives as-they-were forced us to centre our labour rather than ourselves. Any demands that we deny our griefs and carry on simply scrubs away at the fabric of our souls’.

Certainly, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated already existing inequalities within the university sector. Academics across Ireland and the UK have reported deepening work-related stress, digital exhaustion, and – particularly for women and minority groups – disastrous impacts on their ability to pursue research as well as their work-life balance more generally. On an institutional level, universities have been placed under unprecedented financial strain arising from the uncertainties of such a global health emergency. Coronavirus decimated among many other things any potential revenue from international student fees or the privatisation of campus services. 

In the Irish context, however, President Higgins has issued a rallying cry for government to come to universities’ financial aid with ‘a model of public education that is democratic if we are in any way serious about the concept of third-level education and scholarship’. He understands the current moment as a necessary wake-up call to ‘reclaim and re-energise academia for the pursuit of real knowledge […] and the enrichment of society in its widest, in its most all-encompassing definition’. On this understanding, the pandemic presents unparalleled opportunity not only for innovative models of public education but for novel understandings of the civic university. The combined forces of democratic society and higher education might come together to address multiple manifestations of discrimination and inequality. 

For all his clear-eyed critique of academia, then, Higgins sees the present moment as presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To be hopeful like Higgins is to prioritise imagination and the unique promise of individuals thinking together in the Higher Education world. It is to see the post-pandemic university as a place of genuine and responsive dialogue, where academic citizenship is not in tension with but actively enhances the pursuit of knowledge. Higgins suggests that we can actively avoid the inertia that is a common side effect in the context of overwhelming institutional or structural inequality. Rather, in maintaining hope over hopelessness in the contemporary university, we can place a richer and more considered set of values and solidarities front and centre. 

Taking guidance from this cautious optimism, we must step very carefully indeed. We must remember the romantic ideals and promises of the university (as ‘a gift of the interval’ to rehearse Michael Oakeshott, or ‘a space for the imagination to go visiting’, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt) and still acknowledge the very real and pressing challenges faced by our staff and students. Here we must bear in mind the de-motivated and financially straitened undergraduate as well as the continually precarious early-career researcher. At the very least we must work to ensure that within the more privileged university cohorts, certain vices (competitiveness, narcissism, aggressiveness, and hypocrisy) might be curbed and certain virtues (curiosity, kindness, respect, and restraint) might be encouraged. 

In this careful cultivation of virtue before vice, the university might become a place for edification rather than corruption. And for those of us privileged enough to have a place within its walls, it might inspire a practice of daily intellectual work in modes that are creative as well as courageous. The university on this model exists not in peril but in promise. It embodies a unique potentiality for wonder, connection, inspiration, and (dare we say it) even joy.

Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

Dr Áine Mahon is Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at University College Dublin. Her book, The Promise of the University: Reclaiming Humanity, Humility, and Hope, is forthcoming with Springer in 2022.

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