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Re-starting universities: we need to have a Plan A, B and C

As Europe emerges from various forms of lockdown, many institutions are focused on adapting to the “new normal.” For research universities, the immediate effects of the pandemic are only now becoming apparent. To better understand how research leaders in Europe are adapting and what their recovery plans will look like in 2020, we asked three leading figures to give us their perspectives:

  • Prof. Anne Borg, Rector at NTNU, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • Prof. Arianna Menciassi, Vice-Rector at University Sant’ Anna Pisa, Italy
  • Prof. Jan Palmowski, Secretary-General of The Guild, representing 20 of Europe’s most distinguished research-intensive universities

During a recent webinar, these panelists shared their perspectives on how universities can reopen (even if they’ve never truly closed). The webinar was moderated by Dr. Michiel Kolman, Senior VP for Information Industry Relations at Elsevier. You can watch it here:

Here are five key insights into how European universities have adapted and how they will re-start research in the post-pandemic world:

1. Universities have remained open for business even at a social distance.

While the lecture rooms may have been empty across universities, back in the labs, researchers have been busy helping to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in many different ways, highlighting the critical role the sector has in society. Prof Palmowski commented:

Universities have really stepped up to the plate with their responsiveness. They have become a key source of trusted advice for their governments when it comes to modeling the effects of the pandemic, and they are at the heart of providing new solutions for responding to coronavirus. In some cases, they have even provided huge numbers of medical students to help. I mean, there’s a significant amount of work that’s been going on in our universities.

Prof. Borg added that in Norway, their government’s decision not to close down critical infrastructure ensured some important experiments continued:

Some of our researchers invented a new test method for the coronavirus by combining nanotechnology and medical technology. I’m very proud that we didn’t only invent the method, but now we are a production unit for it. We can do 100,000 tests a week and we can increase it to 150,000, covering the whole of Norway.

Back in the lab, in most cases it seems that essential research has continued, albeit with some strange adaptations. Prof. Menciassi remarked:

Experimental research hasn’t slowed down. We needed to stay in the lab but are trying to avoid crowded labs, so we are living with Google Docs at the hand for managing the time people spend in the different labs.

2. International students are likely to stay away, but campuses are getting ready to open.

Universities, their staff and students have done an amazing job switching to digital learning solutions and remote working, seemingly overnight. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Students, especially international students, have been deeply affected by social distancing and travel restrictions, perhaps illustrating how international universities have truly become. Prof. Palmowski commented:

There are so many uncertainties around travel and quarantine measures in some countries that a number of our universities have said they will not have international students physically on campus this autumn, and maybe not until this crisis resolved.

Prof. Borg added:

I think the psychological pressure and solitude has actually affected many students and staff. The pandemic has made us realize how important our campuses actually are for both employees and our students.

Indeed, Prof. Borg revealed her ambition to have all students back on campus by August 2020:

Of course, we cannot use the rooms as would have normally done; everyone’s going to be one meter apart. It means that we need to work on what activities should be physical, where you gather the students on campus, and what can be better suited for the digital domain.

This approach was echoed by Prof. Palmowski, who said that “for the foreseeable future, you won’t have 500 to 600 person lectures; we will need to adjust our labs, and we will see more forms of blended learning.

While travel restrictions create uncertainty for many universities, it hasn’t diminished the competition in some disciplines over PhD positions. Prof. Menciassi reports a sharp increase of 50 percent in applications for recently advertised positions. “It was a sort of test for us: let’s see how many students will apply from abroad,” she said. “I was really surprised.”

3. COVID-19’s economic impact will affect the sectors income, existing research projects and future funding

While plans to get students and faculty back on campus seem to be on track, the full extent of the economic impact of COVID-19 is yet to be felt in Europe. As Prof. Palmowski explained:

It really depends on how universities are financed. We see dramatic consequences, for instance, in the UK, where universities are really financed to a significant extent through student fees.

In other European countries, the economic impact will differ depending on the extent their government decides to invest in research and innovation as a way to out of recessions. Prof. Palmowski continued: “What we saw in 2008 (during the last recession) was that countries such as Germany and Sweden boosted their GDP by investing in research, while other countries chose to cut back on investment.”

He predicts there is a risk of a widening gap between part of Europe in terms of research and funding.

In Norway, it is a mixed picture. “I think it’s a little early to say,” Prof. Borg said, “except that there have been some economical packages provided by the government, and they have been directed to the more applied side and, in particular, towards innovation and startups.” The key areas? “Technology and in particular ICT, health and also teacher education.”

For research projects running on through the crisis, there are practical concerns, as Prof. Menciassi explained: “One problem we are experiencing as a research university is related to several running projects that have been forced to extend without additional budget,” she said.

Professor Borg agreed: “Because of these delays, we still have the costs for salaries, and it’s quite substantial amounts of money, and it’s not clear at this point if we will get any support for that.”

It is also important to note that the sector also has a role to play in the economic recovery of Europe. Prof. Borg explained:

The government is asking us to take on more students as a way of supporting our country. Lifelong learning is a big topic in Norway, and we are expecting that people are going to change their field and need further education. They also need to update their knowledge and our sector really has to prepare for that.

4. One discipline is not enough; future research needs to be interdisciplinary.

It is easy to think that universities and institutions operate separate from society, often in their own silos. However, our panelists stressed how the pandemic has helped to break this stereotype. Prof. Menciassi said:

What we have realized during this crisis is that one discipline is not enough. You can’t just have one medical program or initiative; you also need to think about execution and delivery of the medical care. For example, in our university, we discovered just how important it is that managers in the healthcare system work together with medical doctors to define what is best for managing the lockdown – and that medical doctors also need to work together with engineers to validate the technical solution recently developed. For example using roberts to disinfect hospitals.

Prof. Palmowski added:

This crisis has made our researchers come together even more than before, right across all the different disciplines. There is now a new opportunity for us to recognize how different disciplines can really find solutions to some of the massive challenges that we face. For instance, in Germany, the Leopoldina Academy, which comprises a huge number of university scientists from across the disciplinary spectrum, have been the key source of advice for the German Government on COVID-19.

But there is also a warning for any recovery plans in times of such uncertainties. Prof. Palmowski continued:

As new borders are being erected in Europe and across the world in both mental and physical ways, how will we ensure that universities continue to be places that are truly international and inspire new generations to be open and embrace openness?

5. The need to remain an independent, critical friend to society

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, it has in many ways highlighted the role of science and increased the understanding of how research works, specifically in how it informs our health polices and decisions. It also provides a opportunity for universities to have a stronger voice in a post-pandemic world, Prof. Palmowski said:

I think it’s really important for us to use this pandemic as an opportunity to not just to demand academic freedom, but to make the point that universities can only do our job if we are critical friends to our governments and society. We’re actually very often ahead of our governments and have, in some cases, received criticism for that position.

Prof. Borg agreed: “We have this opportunity to kind of reshape our society, and politicians, stakeholders but also the general population have learned to understand that things cannot be certain.”

Prof. Palmowski added:

We’re learning that research is not just about getting a quick fix or getting the vaccine by the end of the year. There are many things scientists do not know. Science is about argument and that is how we engage, improve our thinking and form new ideas. In a world which demands 140-character answers, we really need to be more insistent on the need for complexity, and more assertive about the importance of accepting uncertainty, even if we don’t like it.

Perhaps that is the final takeaway from the discussion. The question hasn’t been how to re-start research, since it seems that research and science never stopped. It is more about making sure that even in times of uncertainty, universities continue to provide a place where critical thinking, innovation, openness and collaboration can thrive in our post-pandemic world.

For that in the words of Prof. Palmowski, we need “a plan A, but also a plan B and Plan C.”

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