There is much talk in both the media and dispatches from government agencies about the idea of mandating the return of students to campus. In fact a number of providers (both public and private) have attempted such a thing – with varying success. The practice is essentially doomed and is most certainly fraught with potentially dangerous outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic – spoiler alert – is not over. In fact, there are more cases of COVID-19 (and its various strains) now than ever before. The potential for infection – particularly enhanced by large groupings in small spaces – is ever-present and even as we write the Queensland Government is recommending a return to mask wearing in certain public settings (BrisbaneTimes.com, Nov 10th, 2022.)
NEW PARADIGMS DO NOT SUIT ALL
There is little doubt that the new paradigm of online learning forced upon the sector is not suited to all students and all institutions. Universal Business School Sydney (UBSS), however, has 93 per cent of students wishing to stay online - so clearly that is a pronounced preference. At one of our campuses the statistic is actually 100 per cent. Grade distributions, Student Feedback on Units (SFUs), and QILT outcomes –all the measurable elements - have remained high and consistent despite the years of the pandemic and the shift away from on campus, face-to-face (F2F) teaching. This is not the case for many – our Australian universities are some of the worst performing providers presumably largely due to their inability get their heads around teaching in the online space, lack of investment in teaching technology, and their preference for research. This has been highlighted in the most recent QILT outcomes. With that said, the logical approach would be a voluntary return to campus – not an imposed one.
The hybrid option – students deciding on either online or F2F – seems to be the most logical mode in the new reality. There are ample examples of quality providers being able to operate effectively in this mode. This should be allowed, and preferably encouraged, rather than dismissed across the board.
We find it dubious, risky, and questionable for regulators to propose a lockstep return to F2F coverage when the student market is strongly demonstrating a preference for hybrid flexibility and choice. To date, we have still not seen the full return of office workers to the CBDs of any Australian city. The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry reports that only 19% of Melbourne’s office workers have returned to fulltime work from their CBD offices and (anecdotally) the Chamber suggests that only 50% of New York City’s CBD employees have (at the time of writing) placed their feet back under their office desks (Paul Guerra, The Herald Sun, 6th June 2022). Why then is a forced return to non-remote or hybrid learning being mandated for students when technology has clearly stepped- up to replace face to face engagements in most work and learning settings? And whilst we note that Elon Musk has called for his employees to immediately engage in a 40-hour week at their various offices - and has also dispatched a massive tranche of Twitter employees into the vast ether of unemployment – he is largely alone in his Trumpian responses to COVID-changed working practices. Few other corporations, governments, or agencies have chosen to fully revert to the age-old habits of 9-5 office and study hours.
We propose that COVID-19 has simply been an accelerator of inevitable and necessary changes to the way in which humans access work and study. Future COVID mutations and variations in the nature of transmission and severity are unavoidable and unknown. COVID seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon – and mask mandates and draconian shutdowns of places of work and study are a distinct future probability. Returning to ‘pre-COVID’ patterns of study behaviour would seem illogical if, as before, we may well be beset with school, university, and workplace closures whilst new effective vaccines and treatments are sought for each new disease variant.
The ‘start-stop’ nature of lockdown measures (such as those imposed in Melbourne and Beijing in particular) has burdened the Victorian economy and added to debts capable of bankrupting the state – the Victorian government has amassed a current and growing debt of $101.2 billion (Josh Gordon, The Age, Oct 9th 2022). A further few billion are anticipated to be added by 2025. Although it can be argued that this debt level has also saved jobs and kept the economy from totally tanking – how much more can be added to this impost before, like Detroit in the USA, Victoria also becomes insolvent? (Pete Saunders, Forbes, 19th July 2019). Detroit’s case is not exactly that of Victoria’s, but the point here is that governments in debt (as is happening at this very moment in time in the UK) have only limited means for resolving deficits: Higher taxation and spending cuts; and the UK’s pending budget is clearly going to introduce painful austerity measures for its population (Emily Atkinson, The Independent 17th November 22).
Currently, many pundits suppose that Victoria’s huge debts will be manageable – though living on as an unwanted legacy left for future generations to deal with. That is, if the economic climate does not deteriorate further. However, both authors here are long in the tooth and have seen the world capriciously change repeatedly over the five decades they have been working, so please excuse our slight cautiousness or even pessimism. Returning to a ‘stop-start’ set of responses to COVID (and its possible future iterations) is a sure-fire way to end up with further lockdowns, working-mask and closure mandates, stalled business ventures, international travel restrictions, and additional economic costs. Retaining a hybrid work and study approach makes much more sense and, as far as UBSS’s data gathered at this moment in time shows, hybrid education offerings have not caused any drop in student outcomes or created negative learning experiences.
INHERENT THREAT AND DANGER
There is, moreover, an inherent threat and danger in forcing students back on campus and into classrooms. Both the New South Wales and Victorian health authorities have warned against the practice heading into the 2023 winter - new strains will potentially run rampant. Crowds need to be discouraged – especially in F2F longer sessions (2-3 hours) and the wearing of masks should be mandated if this practice cannot be avoided. The practice has disaster written all over it. Clearly this suggestion of getting back on campus for all is poorly thought through – arguably irresponsible. Options are required. Quite recently, a cruise ship pulled into Sydney Harbour with hundreds of COVID-infected passengers on board. High-rise CBD campuses (such as some of UBSS’s) have significant similarities. Windows that cannot be opened; classrooms that are contained; and limited lift access – all breeding grounds for infection and spread.
As we are not medical experts in any way or form, we have based our understanding upon (amongst many other things) a recent article in the prestigious journal, Nature (Telenti, A., Arvin, A., Corey, L. et al. Nature 596, 495–504, 2021) which explains that the future trajectory of COVID-19 is indeed very, very uncertain. This, of course, is something very well-known and frequently discussed in the media; however, the deeper implications are that the current COVID virus possesses particular characteristics indicating that it is likely to continue to mutate in a way that currently outpaces our ability to develop viable vaccines and interventions to eradicate it entirely.
The Spanish Flu pandemic (H1N1) first occurred in 1918, with a variant developing into a further killing epidemic (H2N2) in 1957, another (H3N2) emerging as the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, and, surprisingly, (H1N1) resurfacing in 2009. Such influenza viruses are therefore enduring and capable of complex mutation. They simply do not disappear entirely. The cited Nature article further notes that ‘animal betacoronaviruses have already entered the human population five times, including in: 2003 (SARS-CoV), 2012 (MERS-CoV) and 2019 (SARS-CoV-2), and at some earlier time in the case of NL63-CoV and HKU1-CoV, with both MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV associated with severe disease’ (p501-503). The current COVID outbreak is actually described as a sarbecovirus capable of causing zoonotic infections (from animals to humans) - in the current case, from bats to humans where the virus happily multiplies in human lung tissue. Essentially, the concern is that such zoonotic and deadly transmissions are worryingly increasing - with COVID-19 being the latest infectious iteration.
This leads us to a possible three-scenario future posed by the medical scientists writing for Nature:
i. The virus will continue to outpace science and multiply and mutate as it infects further large populations with devastating consequences.
ii. COVID-19 becomes another seasonal form of influenza-like illness with a lower morbidity rate than the current outbreaks have delivered. (But don’t forget that influenza still kills about 650,000 people annually in non-pandemic years – so COVID-19 could remain a seriously lethal and notifiable illness- especially at pandemic levels.)
iii. COVID-19 could mutate into a less harmful, endemic, infection without significantly dire health consequences for most populations.
And we simply don’t know what the future will bring. What we do surmise is that 2 out of the 3 most likely possibilities given above would require major lockdowns and interventions by governments and health authorities if outbreaks were at anything like pandemic levels. In all events, operating as normal in schools, lecture theatres, and offices would be unlikely in the future event of identified COVID-19 outbreaks.
Consequently, we feel that it simply doesn’t make sense to order every student back to campus with this level of uncertainty. And here’s the rub: we said earlier that COVID-19 was simply an accelerant for the move to technological teaching platforms and online/hybrid alternatives. It remains the case that to serve the world in an accessible, affordable, and viable way higher education is destined to become mostly online and hybrid for undergraduates at least. COVID-19 has just sped the changes in the way we deliver degrees – it hasn’t caused the changes. To push everything back to on-campus delivery is to go backwards.
The new reality suggests that students should have the choice of learning on campus or online. Recent surveys at UBSS stress safety and flexibility as being the basis for the preference to stay online. Forcing students to ‘come aboard’ is irresponsible and inappropriate – giving them a genuine option is a better mindset. COVID-19 arrived in Australia on a cruise ship and now our campuses could be set to become surrogate cruise ship environments.
HYBRID BEST SUITS THE NEW REALITY
On reflection – with the new reality – hybrid appears to be the logical progression, certainly in 2023/24. Give students the opportunity to return to face to face should they choose to do so – but at the same time give students the opportunity to remain online should they choose to do that. This seems to be a more logical and thought-through alternative to a potentially disastrous mandate. The very notion of mandating a return to campus is flawed and should be discouraged. A sensible, balanced approach putting the true well-being of students at the forefront of the discussion (in place of real estate and retail issues) is by far a better solution. A mandated return to campus is not a good option in the new reality.
Atkinson, E. (2022). The Autumn Budget: Hunt promises tax hikes and spending cuts. The Independent Newspaper, November.
Editor (2022). Masks back on: COVID wave shifts Queensland from green to amber. BrisbaneTimes.com.au National News, November.
Gordon, J. (2022). Where would you cut spending or increase revenue to reduce Victoria’s debt? The Age, October.
Guerra, P. (2022). The city has work cut out for it. The Herald Sun June. www.victoriachamber.com.au.
Saunders, P., Telenti, A., Arvin, A., Corey, L. et al. (2019). Detroit, Five Years After Bankruptcy. Forbes (www.forbes.com).
Telenti, A., Arvin, A., Corey, L. et al (2021). After the pandemic: perspectives on the future trajectory of COVID-19. Nature 596, 495–504. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021 03792-w/.
Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice President (Academic) at Group Colleges Australia (GCA). Formerly, he was Chair of the Academic Board at the Australian Institute of Music and Dean of the College at Western Sydney University. He has been keenly interested in alternative modes of delivering education since 2000 when he and Professor Bofinger founded ‘The Virtual Conservatorium’. Now, some 20 years later, he is deeply involved in the development of the virtual school.
Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is currently a Higher Education Advisor and Consultant, a Fellow of the UBSS Centre for Scholarship and Research, a member of the UBSS Academic Senate, and an author of gripping detective novels. Formerly, he was President and CEO of Curtin University’s Malaysia campus, Executive Director of Higher Education for Abu Dhabi Government, UAE, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry) at Victoria University, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Research) at Central Queensland University.