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The Pandemic and the Regional Role of the University

As our Innovative Training Network on the Role of Universities in Innovation and Regional Development nears its end, the corona pandemic is profoundly affecting universities, regions, and indeed much of the rest of the world. Across many countries, universities have closed their campuses, moving to digital teaching and home offices. This has also been the case here in Norway, where the government announced the closure of all universities on 12 March – a closure that remains in effect at the time of writing this blog.

At the University of Stavanger, we are developing a new university strategy until 2030, with “an open university” as one of the main keywords being proposed. In this context, it is a paradox that the university is now, in fact, closed. I have been extremely impressed with the ability of our faculty, staff and students to transition quickly and effectively to digital forms of communication. This in the context of challenging circumstances with genuine concerns for the health and wellbeing of themselves and their loved ones. Varied home office situations and increased care duties make it difficult for many to work productively, with the effects varying across career and life stages. For many students, the loss of incomes from part-time jobs add to the severity of the situation. As employers and educational institutions, universities need to be sensitive to these challenges. Despite all this, courses shifted to digital teaching methods within a few days, exams have gone digital, meetings are back on, and our faculty has been active in funding bids, publishing and participating in the public debate.

As the pro-rector for innovation and society, I have been part of the university’s strategic crisis committee, which was established to make decisions on how to handle the pandemic. In the beginning, this involved daily meetings covering a range of different issues, on everything from teaching, exams and PhD defences to communication, IT and building security. As the situation has stabilised and many decisions have been made, we have moved to meetings twice a week.

One of the first topics to address was how to interpret the government’s decision on closing the university. What does it mean that a university is closed? The decision was communicated in a public press conference with little advance warning (although it had certainly been looming for some days), and with little additional information provided. Only the following day did the ministry clarify that teaching was to proceed, but on digital platforms. The question remained about which groups of staff, if any, could still access campus. This was not made any easier by the Minister for Higher Education expressing in an interview that researchers were welcome to use their offices, even if they were generally advised to work from home if they could. Like most other Norwegian universities, we had not interpreted the guidelines in a way which would allow faculty to access their offices freely, considering that this would also require the presence of other staff, such as cleaners and security personnel. Our top priority remains the health and safety of our students, staff and faculty. Nonetheless, many faculty members were understandably keen to use their offices and correspondingly annoyed with the continued closure. Later developments proved our interpretation to be correct: When the universities are allowed to gradually reopen from 27 April, access is limited to students and PhD candidates close to graduation in specific fields (health, STEM, media and performing arts) and for whom physical access to campus is necessary in order to complete their programmes. In addition, access is allowed only for faculty and staff whose presence is required for these specific students to complete their degrees, and not to other groups of employees.

Turning to the regional role of the university, outreach activities are obviously among the areas which suffer when the university is closed. Physical meetings are off the table, including many networking and dissemination events which are important for connecting the university to regional stakeholders. Developing new contacts between university researchers and external actors is similarly difficult, as digital communication platforms tend to work best in groups that are already well-established. In general, the developmental role also needs to take a back seat when there are immediate fires to be put out.

However, the need for engagement is certainly not any smaller. University research is clearly important for the resolution of the pandemic. The need for new knowledge on vaccines, treatments and containment policies is pressing. The global academic community has duly responded, with a vast number of scholars from various fields turning their attention to coronavirus, often working in innovative ways to share data and accelerate peer review in order to develop and share new knowledge quickly. Research funders have mobilised quickly to make new resources available for this type of research, stimulating new research projects also at our university.

While vaccines and treatments are global, health services are often regional, implying that the university’s engagement to address the pandemic also has a regional dimension. Our students and faculty in health sciences have been called into action as reserve labour for hospitals and health services to secure access to qualified personnel. We are sharing protective equipment from our labs with the regional hospital and have started production of new test kits and protective equipment.

Regional economies have also been severely affected, adding to the need for universities to engage with regional stakeholders. Forced closures and activity restrictions are hitting firms in many service industries hard. For the Stavanger region, the sharp and sudden fall in oil prices is creating a parallel crisis in the region’s leading industry. The university can help firms to develop new business models or service offerings that are compatible with the new realities. We can be a partner for regional companies when applying for e.g. innovation support from the Research Council, a scheme which has been expanded as part of the government’s stimulus package. Webinars hosted by cluster organisations or the chamber of commerce are useful in reaching out to firms with information on the existence of these schemes and the potential for collaboration, especially to firms which are not traditionally oriented towards research or the Research Council programmes. Besides firms in difficulties, there is also a need to reach out to furloughed or laid-off workers with information on educational programmes and offerings, both short- and long-term. We are working to develop new offerings that would allow such workers to enhance their formal competence during the period in which they are on furlough or while looking for a new job.

While several planned meetings with regional stakeholders were cancelled in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak, most such forums are now back on through digital channels. The Value Creation Forum – our most important channel for interaction with key regional stakeholders at the senior management level – is running a digital meeting this week, following successful meetings in its sub-groups for clusters and for entrepreneurship and incubators. These have provided meaningful opportunities for discussing with regional industries and policy-makers how to address the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

The university also has an important role in contributing to the public debate on the pandemic in regional and national media. In this regard, researchers from various fields are participating in the public debate through op-eds in regional newspapers, webinars hosted by regional organisations and media interviews, sharing their insights on issues ranging from the government’s policies for handling the pandemic through society’s preparedness and digital classrooms to the long-term effects of the pandemic. This has contributed to an interdisciplinary discourse drawing on perspectives from public health, societal safety, economics, social policy, political science, educational science, chemistry and engineering, to mention but a few.

In the pandemic, the university’s role is perhaps one of regional crisis management more than regional development. However, the role of the university in and for the region is as important as ever. There is a need for knowledge and for the university’s research, education and innovative ideas, to help individuals, firms, policy-makers and public service providers. In a situation where communication is more challenging than before, the university needs to be innovative and develop new ways to contribute to its region in order to fulfil this mission.

Rune Dahl Fitjar
RUNIN Project Leader