To borrow a well-known aphorism, one of the first casualties of a pandemic is the truth.
More precisely, the bending of language by university managers to suit their desired goals in the face of Covid-19 is where the line between truth and falsehood has been blurred.
Language matters in a pandemic because it can have direct effects on the health and well-being of staff and students. The label “Covid-secure” is not just a description: it is an action that reopens a place to the public and, for universities, it has led to soaring infection rates, bungled hall lockdowns and significant student distress.
The UK’s university managers have mostly refused to acknowledge that the return of students to campus means that we cannot avoid spreading the disease, no matter how many branded masks we distribute or how much we tape the floor. Leaders have papered over this reality with a series of emotive communications to staff, students and the wider community in which face-to-face teaching is characterised as an unarguable moral good. That said, the contorted language used by some managers can stretch only so far.
Staff at some institutions reported that when they asked not to teach face to face because of the risks that have been shown to persist, they were told that the campuses were “Covid-secure”. Their concerns were presented as stemming from their own subjective anxiety – with some institutions going as far as offering cognitive behavioural therapy to worried lecturers. This is gaslighting. To claim that a campus is safe, despite all the evidence of spread – to claim that a staff member’s sense of danger is the product of individual anxiety – is to call into question that staff member’s sense of reality.
This gaslighting around risk is compounded by an emotive framing of the “hard work” that universities have undertaken in order to open. Under this “hard work” narrative, to acknowledge that the campus is still unsafe is to make an unfair criticism of other colleagues’ effort, professionalism and expertise. Reluctant to do this, we stay silent in the safety briefings that increasingly sound like advertisements for Potemkin villages, with their laboured but impotent intricacies.
Here too, linguistic framing hides the truth. While colleagues have in many cases worked very hard to make campuses less hazardous, less hazardous is not the same as safe. Those vice-chancellors who have “paid tribute” to cleaning measures introduced prior to reopening sometimes use this public praise to pressure staff into becoming complicit in the hygiene theatre of the universities: to do otherwise is couched as being uncharitable and disrespectful to colleagues.
Communications to students and parents involve similarly emotive framing. One example was the blog by a vice-chancellor directed at worried parents, which claimed that students viewed their “newly found independence under Covid-19” as “energising, rather than daunting”. “It will be easy for them to give up and return to the security of the family home, but it may not be the best thing for their long-term well-being and success,” the post added.
On one level, this is an appropriately solicitous comment. At the same time, though, the language sets up a powerful opposition between those “energised” by “independence” and those needing the “security” of “home”: we all know which one we would rather be.
This framing again fails to acknowledge what students are experiencing: they are not simply “anxious” or prone to “giving up” too easily because they are prioritising “security” over “independence”; the situation they find themselves in is inherently hazardous, as shown by the rapidly growing numbers of cases.
Home may not always be the best thing for student well-being, but neither is a locked-down hall (especially on those campuses where Pot Noodles have been delivered for dinner and sniffer dogs patrol the grounds), nor, more acutely, is a hospital ward.
Fixing the current crisis is the number one priority faced by UK higher education, but this process will begin only when university managers take responsibility for the reality of Covid-19 campuses, rather than hiding behind emotive rhetoric that casts a structural problem as an individual one.
The author is a lecturer at a UK university.