What forms of resistance did higher education academics undertake during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By: Bronwyn E. Wood, Rosalyn Black, Kerri Garrard

While the COVID-19 pandemic brought rapid and considerable change to higher education institutions, we heard remarkably little from affected academics as they sought to respond to these changes. In our new paper in Teaching in Higher Education we argue that this precarious moment provided a vital chance to see forms of academic resistance. During some of the longest lockdowns and border closures in the world, teacher educator academics (n=13) from Australia and New Zealand revealed multiple ways they navigated these seemingly totalising forces of neoliberalism through working to maintain quality education, collegiality, criticality and care – strategies we began to analyse as forms of resistance.

Resistance is a word that is frequently thrown around in education circles. Recognised to be much more than ‘fighting’, academic resistance conveys a sense of opposition. However, when we looked at research around the world, we found it was poorly theorised and defined. In addition, it was largely focused on public forms of resistance (such as public protest) that we felt overlooked many quieter strategies we found in our study. Informed by critical, feminist and post-structural theory we identified three broad forms of resistance:

  • Public opposition as resistance: While resistance is most commonly understood as an oppositional public act, only two academics referred to such examples in the Covid years. Caleb (from NZ) talked about how he and academic colleagues ‘launched a bit of a coup’ to push back against a new software system that threatened to undermine the role of teachers. One other academic (Gidgit, Australia) also talked about the need to ‘fight City Hall’ as face to face teaching was replaced with online learning. However, such examples were rare.
  • Education as resistance: Using education as a form of resistance in itself was the most common form of resistance proposed and enacted by our participants. This was perhaps a logical extension of their role as teacher educators, but we suggest that many higher education academics also employ similar approaches which included the strategic selection of critical knowledge in their courses in order to ‘disrupt some the systemic structures that disable generative thinking’ (Salesi, NZ), and encourage students to develop critical thinking. Encouraging students to take social action and act for social justice was an extension of this:

“I don’t think it’s enough to just stuff young people’s heads full of what it might mean to be an active citizen: it’s got to be something that they do, and they’ve got to do it while they’re at university. Otherwise, it’s never gonna be done.”

  • Everyday activisms as resistance: The final category of resistance was more difficult to see as it occurred beyond the public radar and occurred in everyday, domestic spaces – and through daily interactions. In these ‘uncaring’ institutions of higher education, participants described acts of resistance that were marked by forms of collegiality, care and a desire to promote ‘collective orientations’ (Colin, Australia) through teaching and daily interactions. Informed by feminist and post-structural theories, care and relationality can be seen as forms of resistance that defy the individualism promoted through neoliberal and competitive forces in higher education and instead build collective solidarities and inclusion. At times this included refusing to accept the ways things were, as Caleb (NZ) put it:

“… we’ve all constructed this thing called education. And so we can keep refining and redefining it, and we don’t have to accept it.”

As our study shows, the heightened precarity that higher education institutions experienced during the COVID pandemic certainly led to forms of resistance by academics – but these were also at times difficult to see. We found that using a suite of theoretical tools helped to open up broader definitions of what resistance could look like – we outline these in Table 1.

Table 1. Theoretical origins for typology of resistances in education.

We view this table as the start of generative conversation about forms of resistance in higher education institutions and the potential for ‘conditions of possibility’ that still exist for critical resistance, care, connection and hope in the contemporary neoliberal university.

Find out more about the project here.

News 18 April 2024