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When the devastating COVID-19 pandemic struck the world, universities had to pragmatically deal with change and adaptation in order to survive. Up to now, our universities are still adapting to the change in every respect because of the pandemic which is still amongst us. We have witnessed remarkable ways in which students, staff and stakeholders have adapted to the complexities brought by the pandemic. It has been established that in organisations, there is a strong relationship between evolution, adaptation and survival. Keith Morrison in ‘School Leadership and Complexity Theory’ discussion (2002) suggests ‘Complexity to be a theory of change and adaptation detailing how change occurs in systems as well as the principles and mindsets needed to flourish in turbulent environments’ that has not changed since 2002. Morrison’s theory is applicable to the situations our higher education institutions are in, especially now during the troubled time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Universities most certainly are an example par excellence of complex systems and thus complex economics, being complex non-linear systems exhibiting self-organisation. Truly, even in the best and easiest of times, university leadership must accept flexible learning, critical thinking and cutting-edge research, and thus operations in evolution. For certain, this can be confusing or even disorientating for all trying to operate in the system, staff, students and all stakeholders, but still, they are essentially not chaotic.
But what now? Now we are not at all in the easiest of times, we have a further very major variable entering the fray and causing extremely rapid change: a Respiratory Pandemic. How do we manage university complexity, with the world in crisis and a new variable? Everything has changed in Higher Education in response to COVID-19.
Well, we manage using the classic complexity science principles, that does not change, we just must get on with remodelling and rapidly: networks, emergence, organisation, feedback and agility. Plus, we also try and understand chaos in this context. The relation between complexity and chaos is fundamental to what is going on here, and Rickles and others have produced a great primer (from 2007, but still highly relevant). Reading this source provides more information on this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2465602/
Can we model our way out the disruption caused by COVID-19? At first, most certainly we could not. During the first year of the pandemic, we did not at all understand enough about the virus and variants and only very primitive, centuries old, control techniques could be used: social distance, masks, hygiene, isolation and quarantine. The stabilising effect of vaccines has meant that disruption should most certainly get less and the running of Higher Education establishments in a more predictable manner should be possible. Education, research and development should all restart, admittedly within certain constraints. Universities must play a leading role in demystifying vaccines as there are large sections of the population in Namibia that are still sceptical about the coronavirus and resist vaccines. The overwhelming disinformation about COVID-19 needs to be arrested if we are to win this war.
The truth is, at the outset of this respiratory pandemic no-one knew what to do: we were all feeling our way in the dark. We were thrown into sixes sevens! Thus, the virus produced chaos at first within complex university systems. The virus brought havoc and despondency. Teaching, research and community service have all been disrupted.
Let us not neglect the opportunity afforded by the disruption of COVID-19 to adapt and evolve meaningfully, especially as COVID-19 is very likely going to be with us for decades to come.
Fundamentally, without good quality modelling to understand the complexity and reduce chaos (definitely, the downward slope of the U-shaped curve) there is likely redundancy of processes and poor economics.
Let us have more creativity in Higher Education: our Computer Scientists and Mathematicians are needed now more than ever as leaders of multi-professional university teams. This is not to downplay the remarkable work that our social scientists play in the whole equation of COVID-19, complexities, change and adaptation.
*Adapted from the article “Covid-19 chaos and complexity” that was co-authored by Prof Jairos Kangira and Prof Judith Hall, which was published in the New Era Newspaper, 1 October 2021