Higher Education in Times of Crisis

Higher Education in Times of Crisis. A qualitative-exploratory study about the experience of the Corona pandemic among university faculty and students. (08/2020 - 02/2021)

Project Question, Project Objective and socio-political Relevance

The explorative research project, which is being conducted at the University of Applied Sciences Zittau/Görlitz (Dr. Hanna Haag) in cooperation with the Humboldt University Berlin (Daniel Kubiak), addresses the question of how the current situation following the nationwide exit and contact restrictions in the wake of the Corona pandemic at German universities is experienced by faculty and students and what challenges arise for the aforementioned groups of actors. Even before the start of the semester in April 2020, most German universities have adjusted to the new circumstances, in some cases at an unprecedented and unfamiliar pace for academic operations.

Many see the crisis as an enormous boost to digitization. What has been underway for years, for example through e-learning centers, is now undergoing its first test run in a crisis and exceptional situation, but with virtually no lead time. Under enormous time pressure, universities had to react to the effects of the contact restrictions in the wake of the Corona crisis, and this at a time when regular semester operations were just being planned or had even already begun at some locations (mostly universities of applied sciences). At Humboldt University, for example, up to 80% of the teaching program was converted to "digital" within a few weeks.

The measures are far-reaching and affect universities and especially their employees of various status groups on different levels: Offices, libraries and other buildings will be closed or only opened for restricted access. The start of the summer semester will be adjusted to the spread of the virus and the corresponding consequences, which will also affect the planning of the winter semester at least. Deadlines for examinations as well as application and admission procedures will be changed following a decision by the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs. For electronic examinations, even the examination regulations were changed, if necessary. Within a few weeks, teachers and students had to adjust to the exclusive implementation of teaching in the digital space, which until then had taken place mainly in seminar rooms and lecture halls. A gradual change to "more of" became a "compulsion to" extensive digitization. This had an impact on personal interaction, working hours and conditions, technical qualifications, and also made private hardware resources of teachers and students a new inequality factor in the educational landscape.

In addition, other effects of the crisis experience are emerging. For example, the shift to working from home (the so-called 'home office') with a simultaneous lockdown of almost all areas of society (e.g., kindergartens, schools, public transportation, administration, shopping, cultural life) that are not classified as system-relevant (as is also the case, for example, with the entire academic enterprise) exacerbates the compatibility of family and work. Although the positive effect of the "home office" must certainly be conceded against the backdrop of compatibility issues (elimination of commuting, efficient use of time resources, more flexible arrangements), in the course of the exceptional situation many university lecturers and students with children experience the situation as precarious, because work must be maintained and studies continued while homeschooling and childcare are on the agenda and, depending on the economic situation, existential and future fears make concentration difficult. Although this is not a main focus of the study, but can only be captured in a long-term perspective, it can be surmised that the situation once again complicates the career paths of women in science or the studies of females with families and thus points to existing grievances in the design of working and learning conditions with a view to gender issues (Degele 2020). One impact that primarily affects students is the financial hardship that some of them have found themselves in as a result of the federal measures. For example, many students have lost the part-time jobs they rely on to (partially) finance their studies.

In summary, it can be said that in the aforementioned research project, in addition to the structural adaptations - such as the provision of online tools or the modification of examination requirements - the individual and collective coping of the acting subjects is the focus of consideration.

The following Research Questions are posed in the Project:

  • How do teachers and students react to the changes and innovations in their current everyday work?
    (Changes in everyday working life)
  • What opportunities and risks do they see in digitization in the field of university teaching under the given conditions? How do the stakeholders perceive interaction in the digital space?
    (Opportunities and risks of digitization)
  • For example, how is the dissolution of boundaries between public-organizational and private lifestyles shaped by the extensive relocation of activities to private spaces?
    (Dissolution of boundaries between work/study and private life)
  • How do students in particular experience the socioeconomic consequences of the crisis?
    (Financial bottlenecks)

The topic is socio-politically very relevant, as evidenced for example by numerous public letters calling for a "non-semester" (Villa Braslavsky 2020) or the defense of "face-to-face teaching" (Ackermann et al. 2020). In many German cities, including Leipzig and Dresden, students take to the streets publicly in support of an uncertain financial situation and a way out of new debt through loans (Wahl 2020). In addition, there are discussions about technical use and also data protection issues. Fear of difficulties in completing studies in the standard time is clearly on the rise. So far, however, little is known about how the experience of crisis has a concrete impact on social interaction for teachers and students, which underscores the need for research that focuses on this topic area.

Background and State of Research

The working conditions in educational professions have always been exposed to different challenges. As Karin Lohr, Thorsten Peetz and Romy Hilbrich can trace in their study on "Educational Work in Transition" (Lohr/ Peetz/ Hilbrich 2013), the continuing education market is primarily affected by precarization, the school system by bureaucratization and science by economization. At the latest through the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz and the Bolognareform of the study programs, aspects of precarization can also be increasingly observed for scientific employees. Although the development of Western societies into service and information societies seems to be unstoppable, in the Federal Republic of Germany scientific activities are increasingly associated with the term "academic precariat" (Ohm 2016).

The Bologna reform has modularized studies, critics say verschult. Studies are divided into Bachelor's and Master's programs and are characterized by standardization. Work performance is accounted for in credit points. The workload has increased and the content requirements are tighter. In addition, the cost of living has risen in many university towns (especially in the very popular major cities) and many students are dependent on part-time jobs (Claus/Poietzionka 2013).

Universities are striving for digitalization. The "Forum Bildung Digitalisierung"(FBD) and the "Hochschulforum Digitalisierung" (HFD) advocate future-oriented digitization in education. A thesis summary of the challenges and opportunities of digitization in higher education proves that this is, on the one hand, a long-term process, which, on the other hand, is particularly dependent on the cooperation of different actors and their articulation of needs (HFD). In their comprehensive study on the digitization of higher education, Gilch et al (2019) show that higher education institutions have been open to digitization for quite some time, but that the structure and organization of the process differ greatly depending on the location.

"It is confirmed that in the digitization of higher education institutions - whether in terms of the organization as a whole or differentiated according to the core tasks of their individual areas - a complex task meets complex structures, which are also dependent on political framework conditions and influences in their development and both within and outside the university." (Gilch et al. 2019: 172)

The authors measure the degree of digitization in research, teaching, and administration. Especially in the area of teaching and learning, the individual competencies of teachers as well as students have an impact. This is also the conclusion of a 2016 study by the Higher Education Forum on Digitization, which found that there are no "digital natives" per se, but that the media skills of teachers are a decisive factor. In order to encourage teachers in these skills, good support structures are also needed. Digitization is therefore not just a purely technical transformation, but rather a comprehensive learning process. As recently as September 2019, Markus Lücker headlined "The long road to e-exams, digital lectures and AI in the lecture hall" in the Tagesspiegel (Lücker 2019). Only half a year later, this long road had to take a rapid shortcut. It can be assumed that not only new developments can be found through Covid-19, but some aspects described above have simply intensified.

Layout of the Project/methodological Approach

The research project has a strong topical relevance. In the meantime, there are already several scientific projects dealing with the effects of the Corona crisis in different social fields2. In the social sciences, a number of surveys have gone into circulation. These standardized questionnaires have been quickly tinkered with and ask about various aspects of social impacts of the crisis. This form of rapid research has not only been addressed in the 'Bild-Drosten controversy', but has also already been critically questioned within the social sciences (Auspurg 2020). With our qualitative explorative and thus inductive study we want to dig deeper, contrary to the production of fast knowledge, with the help of the group discussion method (Flick/ Kardoff/ Steincke 2000) by stimulating an exchange among each other. This method is about making collective knowledge based on similar experiences (in this case, the experience of the crisis situation) accessible by speaking together. Since the survey had to take place in the digital space due to the pandemic, the specificity of the current situation is thus also reflected in the research process: Not only teachers and students, but also researchers are dependent on adapting to the changed conditions.

The first group discussions were scheduled and also conducted immediately after the Covid lockdown. We thus conducted a total of six group discussions with faculty and students at two universities of applied sciences and two universities in April and May 2020. Our sample includes one institution in eastern and one in western Germany, and among the teachers, both the status group Mittelbau and the status group Professor*innen. A second wave of the survey will be conducted in September 2020 to ask the same participants about their experiences after the semester and shortly before the start of the winter semester 2020/2021, which will presumably take place digitally again. While the first discussions took place in exciting times for everyone, the aim now is to reflect on the experiences with some distance and to take a look at the planning for the coming semester.

The group discussions will be evaluated with qualitative content analysis (Mayring 2007) in combination with selective sequential fine analysis (Bohnsack 2000) and we will thus be able to make a typology and make statements about how the current situation has affected everyday academic life.

Project Funding

The project is funded by Max-Traeger-Stiftung.


Project Lead

Dr. phil. Hanna Haag