Fragility is one of those phenomena in life that are relative. And just like anything that is measured or judged in relation to something else, absent that something else we have no reason to assume fragility. So when a pandemic shows up, not out of the blue either since it sent us many a harbinger and courier long before it made its journey from the far east, we finally have that missing ‘something else’. We are finally entitled to liberally throw around the word fragility on things, particularly institutions, that now appear to be systemically crumbling, respect those that hold firm and learn from those that thrive. The higher education system appears to be in the first camp so far, and has a long way to go before it becomes robust let alone antifragile.
In a qualitative research my team and I conducted with 130 university lecturers around the UK on the impediments to high quality teaching at universities – particularly one to one office hours, the most commonly cited factor was a lack of time*. At face value, this is obvious. You cannot expect university lecturers to provide personalised tutoring to cohorts that typically consist of 51-100 students. However, this answer is much too vague alone. A lack of time can be attributed to any number of things. So in our probing, we were interested in the application of the finite number of hours lecturers had each week. What we found was an indictment of what higher education has become. More than 65% of the lecturers considered the increasing admin tasks imposed on them by university management the largest contributor to time waste. The key word waste represents the time spent on tasks lecturers deemed “unnecessary to the delivery of teaching or research”.