Coronavirus lockdown has created some new First World problems – John McLellan

What is the dress code for a video conference and is backlighting from a window all right or does it make you look like the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, wonders John McLellan.
Boris Johnson wore a suit for this video conference call with other G20 leaders, but other people have taken a more relaxed approach to the dress code (Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images)Boris Johnson wore a suit for this video conference call with other G20 leaders, but other people have taken a more relaxed approach to the dress code (Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson wore a suit for this video conference call with other G20 leaders, but other people have taken a more relaxed approach to the dress code (Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images)

No sport, no events, no festivals, no weddings or parties; coronavirus has denied us the calendar punctuation marks which speed us through the year. End of term, holiday season, recess and even weekends have lost their meaning under lockdown.

Of course the victims now have no need for diaries, calendars or meeting prompts and nothing can minimise the unfolding tragedy hitting thousands, if not millions, of families, but life must go on and how those of us fortunate enough not to be directly affected so far do that is as much part of the story as the experience of those on the front line.

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Home-working is now what is keeping the country going and for those of us already used to it, appointments brought a welcome cadence to the week and now they are just another phone call or an hour spent peering at the same screen we stare at the rest of the day. But as they say, it’s much better than the alternative.

The efficiency of not having people criss-crossing towns, cities and the skies for meetings of marginal value will reduce travel in the new after-Covid normality; face-to-face interaction will still be important but the justifications more stringent. Who knows how long it will take the international conference market to recover as non-essential spending is slashed.

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Businesses will see just how much cost can be cut by smaller offices and more people working independently, where control matters much less than initiative and output. Coffees and lunches on expenses? Forget it.

But modern communications can only reproduce normal working practices so far and Skype and Zoom create issues all of their own. Signal outages and technical glitches are obvious but subliminally communicating the aura of corporate power and success is more difficult when the backdrop is the family noticeboard or clashing curtains and wallpaper. Some firms have quickly latched on to virtual backdrops for staff video-conferencing from home, while everyone else learns to become an IT trouble-shooter while wrestling with the new First World problems of what workmates will make of the room or how to dress for a 9am meeting when just out of bed or the shower.

Some, like Tom Wilkinson in The Full Monty, might still put on the collar and tie as part of the mental separation of work and homelife. Do women need to put on the slap? Sit in front of a window and the backlighting takes care of it all, if you don’t mind coming across like Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist in Marathon Man. It’s less of an issue for those already set up for home working – one of my Stirling University colleagues has a superb man-cave at the foot of his garden lined with hundreds of books and classical CDs – and for many in higher education and local politics the notion of business dress is somewhat quaint if it was ever a notion at all.

On a council conference call this week we admired the fine collection of Beanie Babies behind one colleague, whose kids had been kicked out the playroom while now-bearded daddy talked politics. Or so he said.

As Covid hits universities hard, it’s time to review four-year degrees

Not that we noticed, but Stirling’s teaching semester ended this week with the usual flurry of final assignments to mark, virtual module fairs and finalising arrangements for exam replacements. For thousands of students, sitting at home waiting for instructions to pop up is the new university experience.

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While students understandably bemoan the loss of what their forbears took for granted, particularly those graduating who will miss out on the rites of moving on, and old lecturers are forced to learn new tricks, the institutions themselves face apparent catastrophe as income vanishes.

Universities Scotland pointed out this week that if international students disappear it will blow a massive hole in their finances. An Audit Scotland report last year estimated the total income of the 19 Scottish institutions in 2017-18 was £3.8bn, of which £1.1bn came from the Scottish Funding Council and £800m from research grants. Tuition fees raised £1.2bn and residence rents made up the bulk of the £570m from other sources.

Heriot-Watt and Aberdeen are particularly exposed as nearly 50 per cent of the former’s income came from fee-paying students and the latter recorded an overall £7.5m deficit. Edinburgh will be hit not only by the loss of student revenue and summer lets, but the cash-cow of Fringe venues and putting up performing companies, so a question-mark must now hang over its extensive estates programme including the Peffermill sports village. Locals may celebrate, but the entire business model of student accommodation firms like Unite has also been smashed.

Total debt was £1.3bn and, as well as Aberdeen, nine other universities ran significant deficits. With heavy reliance on fees and rents and a £1m deficit, Stirling has a big problem, but nothing compared to Robert Gordon which was over £11m in the red in the year the Principal Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski left with a £237,000 pay-off.

Although the desire to study abroad will be as strong among students as ever, it could still take years for the international study market to fully recover, if it ever does. Like all institutions, universities must therefore adapt to the new circumstances and while Universities Scotland may be exaggerating for effect to claim some will close there is no doubt major change will be necessary.

New courses are already being scrapped, especially those aimed at overseas post-graduates prepared to pay £20,000 a time, and that has a knock-on for staff levels. Undergraduate programmes popular with predominantly Scottish students should be safe, but two of the biggest deficits are at Queen Margaret and Glasgow Caledonian which mainly serve home-grown students and cannot rely on research income like the big historic universities.

It has been coming for years, but this should be the moment to review the traditional Scottish four-year honours programme. The system emerged at a time when the vast majority of Scottish university entrants left school with five or six Highers after fifth year, not three Advanced Highers after sixth. Gap years were unknown. Basic arts or science degrees elsewhere take three years, so the fourth year is questionable and comes with great expense to both students and universities. At least Scottish universities have an option.

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