The COVID19 pandemic caused massive disruption for universities and university student ministry in Australia of which we are still feeling the effects. We are still in a tertiary education context with much, much smaller numbers of international students Many school-leaver university students have had their early adulthood shaped by lockdowns, isolations and COVIDsafe measures that include caps on room capacity and availability of online options. Universities continue to have COVIDsafe measures in place, many of which are still quite restrictive, all of which make online learning an ongoing feature.
COVID19 accelerated pre-existing trajectories
In some of this, COVID19 accelerated trajectories which were already observable prior to the pandemic: online learning, students spending less time on campus, working more hours in addition to their studies, decline in voluntary student activities and groups etc. Some of these things are coupled with larger social and cultural changes, including:
- Housing affordability and availability meaning not only are the family of local students living in homes further and further away from university students, but in some contexts, even affordable student accommodation isn’t easy to come by close to campuses.
- Complicated family life meaning less simple lives and living arrangements for students.
- Other social factors that have changed the social life of Australians: rise of double-income families, increasing professionalisation and corporatisation of formerly voluntary and public activities and services (including universities and university spaces), decline in churchgoing and other group participation, all sorts of social and economic changes that came from the internet and social media.
- Shift in the make-up of our inner cities and regional cities in ways I haven’t looked into in detail, but including things such as tree and sea changes.
- Rising of cost of living and standard of living in some areas pushing felt or real need to work part-time, dissatisfaction with on-campus ‘lifestyle’.
- The shift from the 1970s to the 2020s from ‘mass tertiary education’ to ‘universal tertiary education’. In Australia there was an enormous shift from ‘elite tertiary education’ to ‘mass tertiary education’ in the 1970s, making university affordable through government support schemes. Theorists now describe our society as one of ‘universal tertiary education’— an increasing shift towards tertiary education being considered not only available to the masses but desirable for almost everybody. This broadens and diversifies the university population, what universities offer and how universities see themselves significantly.
- Government funding changes to tertiary education and university administration changes of various kinds, that affect the experience of both university staff and student experience.
- An increase in evangelical churches well-equipped to minister to and evangelise university students, which prompt students to question the unique benefits of also engaging with a campus ministry. In previous decades, campus ministries were offering events accessible to non-Christians for students whose churches were still very traditional; were offering in-depth expository teaching and theological instruction to churches that were either light and topical or heavy and doctrinal; were providing opportunities for high-level training and ministry activity for young adults, where they were largely sitting in pews or running Sunday School at their churches. Campus ministries are no longer anywhere near as obviously unique as they used to be in these things.
As a result of these things, even prior to the pandemic, there was an increasing number of school leavers/young adults who wouldn’t primarily or substantially identify as ‘university students’, wouldn’t be living the stereotypical ‘student lifestyle’ and wouldn’t see the university campus as a meaningful ‘third place’ for belonging and activity.
COVID19 accelerated changes in behaviour among school leavers/young adults so that the norm of ‘university lifestyle’ has radically changed. This can be observed on the ground in campus ministries, where many groups are still drastically smaller than they were prior to the pandemic.
But universities have also made significant changes.
Universities making permanent move to online-only lectures
In addition to these social changes, many universities are using the disruption of the pandemic (or are compelled as to cut costs due to the impact of the pandemic and other factors) to make permanent changes to their approach to teaching. Many are adopting the current popular teaching methodology of the ‘flipped classroom’—where pre-reading/watching/listening is more information intensive and in-person teaching is more practical and discussion-based. As a result many universities are announcing permanent move to online-only lectures.
Clearly there are potential economic benefits to this shift (saving on large lecture hall real estate and weekly senior lecturer hours, ability to attract online students beyond the immediate area of their campuses) but universities also point various reasons for this shift:
- The pre-pandemic decline in lecture attendance is pointed to as evidence that lectures are no longer effective or efficient. This is a questionable argument, given that there are a range of measures that could be applied to encourage (or even enforce) lecture attendance, if it were actually valued. These measures could include: taking attendance at lectures and making a certain percentage of attendance mandatory, making access to online lectures a little bit more difficult, investing in organic community life on campus, reducing the number of lectures per semester or front-loading them in earlier part of the semester.
- The accessibility benefits of online learning. This is certainly true. Accessibility options are not only valuable for those whose lives make on-campus attendance difficult (carers of various sorts, those with disability, those living remotely, those who need to work significant hours due to other financial commitments), but also perfectly satisfactory and even preferable for many mature-age students. However, in many cases accessibility does not clearly trump teaching and formation effectiveness. I believe that especially for school leavers, the value of educational and social formation is far more significant than simple accessibility and convenience.
- The pedagogical benefits of the flipped-classroom approach. This approach still needs to be observed and tested over time—I’m sceptical about all that is being claimed about this approach, and suspect that the dust will settle on this latest methodology. In practice, arguably the best ‘traditional classrooms’ look pretty similar to ‘flipped classrooms’ and many universities claiming to adopt the ‘flipped classroom’ will deliver it much more poorly than the case studies used in the education research. Further, the social benefits of lectures gathering large numbers of students onto campus are significant.
Future of campus ministry
It may be that once things settle, as the pandemic subsides and as a new-normal of tertiary education is established, a modified version of the kinds of campuses ministries that existed prior to the pandemic will largely continue effectively. Certain aspects of young adulthood, student life and university education might prove to be so resilient that despite dramatic changes and accelerated trajectories, the existing model still gets substantial traction.
It may even be that some of these trajectories reach a point where a significant reaction, whether in university strategy and educational model or young adult behaviour patterns emerges.
But it is also possible that some of these dramatic changes and longer-term trajectories will be with us for the at least the mid-term (next 5 years) if not longer. This may be the case of a significant minority (or majority) of universities, while others are largely unaffected, creating an increasingly obvious divide in university experience and therefore in campus ministry.
What could that mean for how we approach campus ministry? That’s what I’ll turn to in my next post.