Covid-19 – from the on-campus to the online University

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“There are two approaches to Covid-19. The first is one about rapid adaptation to the crisis. The University of Birmingham is rising to this challenge and is leading the way.”


In August 2019, my weekends were spent writing a book on service businesses under the title ‘Service Management: Theory and Practice’. This manuscript goes to the publisher at the end of this month. It is an unusual book. Existing approaches to understanding service businesses are fragmented. Thus, there is on-going research on, for example, service operations, service innovation and service marketing. Managing a business is a complex exercise in business activity system integration. Focusing on one aspect of a business provides a rather too narrow focus. My book develops an alternative integrated approach to ‘reading businesses’.

Covid-19 emerged just as the first complete draft of this book was completed on 19 December. Since then the manuscript has been through a rigorous peer review process. Cutting across every chapter is an analysis of the role technological innovation (big data, artificial intelligence, robotics) is playing in transforming service businesses.

Covid-19 is important for two reasons. First, one of my Covid-19 papers that is in press explores the shift towards on-line worship1. This paper argues that an extreme crisis changes places, relationships between places and the existing rules or conventions. Second, the extent and impact of these changes is related to the duration of the crisis.

Universities are service businesses and Covid-19 has changed the rules. But these rules were already changing as new forms of teaching and research emerged. Over the last twenty years, I have become used to co-writing papers with colleagues based overseas. We engage in a rapid process of ‘tennis’ as a manuscript is bounced back and forth before completion. I have co-authored many papers in which there has been no face-to-face contact, or even contact involving teleconferences with my co-authors. Academics are used to balancing online with facing based interactions.

Often, I reflect on the first few weeks of my undergraduate degree. For me, these were transformational. They changed the ways in which I related to the world, to the university and to academic disciplines. I have never experienced this approach at another university. There is much to learn from my initial induction to university life. What was so special about these first few weeks? I will raise three points.

First, my first lecture began with a clear statement that everyone in the room was a student. We were all trying to deepen our understanding of societal and technological challenges. For this first lecture, the clear message was that we were all working together and that the ‘academics’ were students, as were we, engaging in trying to develop a different understanding of real-world events.

Second, the first few weeks commenced with a discussion centred around the roles played by universities, academic disciplines, academics and students. This began with a discussion of John Henry Newman’s 1852 series of lectures entitled ‘The Idea of a University’. There are many problems with this account of universities. There is no question that Newman’s approach is dated. Nevertheless, he did stress the power of a university education in shaping or transforming the whole individual. This emphasis on the ‘whole individual’ is important. There is a real danger that students, parents, employers, and governments measure universities on simple output measures. Consider the limitations of all the university rankings and ask the question ‘ Do these ever measure the true essence of a university’s contribution to society?’ My answer to this question is a resounding ‘No’.

Covid-19 is an unusual opportunity for all universities to revisit the debate on the idea of a university. The shift to on-line teaching is not about substituting on-campus with on-line but developing a new and transformational approach that will extend the reach of universities and alter their fundamental essence. We must ensure that all students – undergraduates, postgraduates and academics - engage in a discussion regarding the idea of the university and let these discussions shape our futures.

Third, during my first few weeks the academics in my departments introduced us to the contributions these departments had made in creating or crafting knowledge. How many academic departments embed their new students within an account of that department’s academic and societal contributions? How many departmental webpages provide an account of these contributions? Part of joining the wider community of a university involves understanding that university’s contributions to shaping societal outcomes and engaging in academic debates. We tend to assume that our departmental histories do not matter as the primary focus is on the future defined around the terms set by the next Research Excellence Framework (REF). This is unfortunate - as our future is partly within our past.

There is one additional reflection. As an undergraduate, there was an annual public lecture series that was open to all. This provided an account of the scientific, humanities and social science approaches, and their histories, to understanding societal problems. These were lunchtime lectures that I engaged with during the first and third years of my undergraduate degree. This lecture series played an important role in shaping my academic career. It partly explains my appreciation that complex societal problems can only be solved by multi-disciplinary solutions.

There are two approaches to Covid-19. The first is one about rapid adaptation to the crisis. The University of Birmingham is rising to this challenge and is leading the way. The second involves re-engaging with the debate regarding the idea of a university. Crises change the rules of the game and this is the time to consider the ways in which universities contribute to society by developing a new balance between on-campus and on-line activities.

Bryson, J.R., Andres, L. & Davies, A., (2020), 'Covid-19, virtual church services and a new temporary geography of home', Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, in press