Guest Post: The Balancing Act

Chloe Duckworth is a Degree Programme Director for Archaeology at Newcastle University

“People often used to say to me before the birth of my son that there’s no ‘perfect’ time to have a baby. Equally, I’m certain there’s no ‘good’ time to be under lockdown, although – to misquote Tolstoy – every unhappy quarantine situation is probably unhappy in its own way.

My partner and I split up before Christmas, and only moved out of our shared house a week before the lockdown began. I’m very grateful for both of our sakes – and that of my son – that we weren’t all trapped together at this time.

Nonetheless, here I am, adjusting in more ways than one, and now home-schooling an eight year old child on top of working full-time, at distance, and managing my ongoing mental health problems. And I’m one of the lucky ones, with a well-paid academic job.

Even so, as I watch some academics use this as a time for writing papers and funding applications, ‘getting ahead of the game’, while I struggle to stay afloat, I can’t help but wonder how the widening of social differences caused by this crisis will impact upon education in this country.

As an academic, I’m painfully aware that all the gendered-ness around child rearing and other caring responsibilities that we had been slowly chipping away at has come back in full force under lockdown. Academic journals are seeing a huge surge in the number of submissions over the past month, but a shocking majority of these are from men.

In an intensively competitive academic world, social disadvantages around class, race, disability, and gender were already problematic.

In the current situation, our usual noises about equality and diversity have been put on the back-burner while everybody deals with what is seen as the more pressing situation. In a single blow, this tells all of us who believed in change for the better that society’s priorities remain the same. When the going gets tough, the already disadvantaged are thrown under the bus.

I’m not just talking about lecturers here. Many of our students have comfortable, supportive homes to go to, but not all do. Some are self-isolating in student halls of residence, which can already be fairly lonely places. Not all students have access to good internet connections, now crucial for participation in online learning, or the ability to find a space for quiet study at home. Students with disabilities are likely to struggle more than most with rapid changes to teaching by well-meaning but frankly swamped lecturers who may miss some of their needs (and I include myself in this condemnation).

Many voices have called for us to use this crisis as an opportunity for positive social change. But if we are serious about things changing, we need to take a long, hard look at what is happening right now. For the past decade, we have seen equality, diversity and inclusion increasingly forefronted in higher education institutes. This means zero if we drop it all the second the going gets tough. These times are the test of who we truly are, not when things are easy, but when they are difficult.”

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