COVID-19 has made unprecedented demands on universities, businesses and our communities. For higher education, headlines are filled with doom-laden predictions of the devastating impact the crisis will have. On the other hand, universities have responded with astonishing speed to the new constraints on the work-place, while research and innovation has never played a more crucial role, helping society to not only tackle the immediate challenges that we face, but also to emerge more resilient and more aware of our shared responsibilities.
At Glasgow Caledonian University, staff have been intensively involved in National Health Service and Scottish Government planning in response to the pandemic, lending specialist equipment, big data analysis and expertise in infection prevention and contact tracing. Other staff are helping hospitals and SMEs develop safe systems of work to control infections and provide evidence-based advice on sustaining positive mental health and wellbeing. Physical activity researchers, respiratory experts and psychologists have launched the world’s largest study into whether physical activity can boost COVID-19 immunity. Hundreds of our nursing students signed up to duty on the frontline.
We’ve also highlighted systemic weaknesses in government preparedness, urged authorities to put human rights at the heart of budget-setting, and helped combat tendencies to stigmatise or stereotype specific groups such as the elderly, as well as looking at how the poorest and most vulnerable have been affected.
So, what now for GCU, other universities and society at large? Out of every crisis there comes an opportunity. COVID-19 has highlighted both the challenges and the enormous potential of previously untapped processes for remote working, rapid access to expertise, data, technology and services (locally and internationally). Real investment needs to be made into harnessing these approaches whilst taking into consideration the potential impact on social and mental health as a result of isolation.
Universities must play a key part of this social revolution and need to be turned inside out. They should be open to all who stand to benefit from our expertise, technologies and resources. We need to take a radical step change in our conceptualisation of the role of higher education within society and how we can contribute to the new economy that will inevitably emerge.
Guided by the Unitied Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, we need to help our society become more resilient, through crisis prevention, research for public health, innovation for public goals, benefits for citizens as well as for the economy, lowering carbon emissions and investing in workers.
Resources will be severely limited, but, at the same time, we will be putting into place a new set of priorities that respond more directly not only to health and care resilience but also to other inequalities and vulnerabilities that have been laid bare, which are likely to be exacerbated by future challenges such as climate change, water, food and energy shortages and environmental pollution.
We need to create a ‘Living Lab’, where our researchers and research students can co-locate with community groups and innovators so that we can work together to tackle the pressing needs of our society and address global challenges together. Our researchers need to step out of the ‘hallowed halls’ of the campus, and into the communities and districts themselves where the needs are greatest.
Only then can we hope to shape the new economy, based on inclusiveness, resilience and social as well as technological innovation.