How COVID has disrupted our sense of a future we can plan for

Prof. Susan Robertson, University of Cambridge, UK

Susan Robertson, Professor of Sociology of Education in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, began her keynote presentation by pointing out how the pandemic had radically altered our sense of time. “It’s not possible to take the future or even the next moment for granted, anymore.”

While the pace of change in university structures, processes and practices is frequently described as glacial, the coronavirus outbreak has caused the accelerator pedal to be slammed down. This has ruptured the usual dynamics of life within the academy, she explained. With the pandemic on no-one’s risk register, her university, like most others, was caught completely off guard by the need to go into lockdown and switch to online teaching.

“What I want to explore is the way in which the temporal orderings, and the idea of the future, have been so dramatically disrupted,” she said.

This exploration took place within a framework of three temporal horizons. The first was our moment-by-moment anticipation of what is about to happen, such as during a ‘normal’ classroom lecture. The second was what she described as an actor’s trajectories through the academy over time - as when a student is deciding whether to enrol on a programme now or wait a year. Finally, there were the plans and temporal landscapes of universities, such as their large planning endeavours and their calendar of events.

“We can argue that COVID-19 has created a crisis of anticipatory governance in the academy," she said. Universities find themselves acting, in a cyclical way, in relation to an unknown future, so as to prevent potential risks and to maximise returns.

Initially they may imagine the future, for example speculating on the trajectory of the pandemic and who may be allowed to travel. Based on these possibilities, they then make policy choices in an attempt to determine what the future will be like. However, once this future arrives, it may not be one that was hoped and planned for.

Typically, we’ve based out predictions on what has happened in the past. Now, though, the past is not as useful. Given uncertainties about enrolment numbers, particularly among international students, it may be possible to make financial plans for only a few months, rather than a year, ahead. Students may have been charged tuition fees based on the promise of face-to-face teaching. How can a failure to deliver on this promise be resolved? Risk assessment tools missed the pandemic, so how far can they be trusted?

Prof Robertson said expectations of 'the student experience' and promises about 'the graduate premium' have been hollowed out. A major challenge for universities is to now find a way to legitimate a future that was not the future that was promised to students, and one whose better aspects of are unequally shared.

She ended her presentation with the suggestion that we start to think in more imaginative rather than probabilistic ways about the future.