UCL Global


Exploring how university leaders across the world responded to the Covid-19 crisis

Professor Tatiana Fumasoli used the UCL Global Engagement Funds to understand how universities responded to the Covid-19 crisis, and what lessons can be learned in the face of future crises.

Multi-ethnic group of students wearing protective face masks while sitting in a lecture hall sitting 2 meters apart.

22 June 2022

In 2020, individuals, businesses and higher education institutions across the world experienced one of the most difficult, uncertain and unstable periods since World War Two. The Covid-19 pandemic impacted everyone, and we looked towards governments, medical professionals and research universities to help navigate us through the crisis. But the role of universities is not only to guide the response to a pandemic through medical research. The organisational response to the pandemic, decisions of senior managers, and continuing the provision of education and student support can also be vital for others to learn lessons from.

To understand the governance of the crisis response in universities further, UCL collaborated with one of its strategic partners, Tohoku University in Japan. Researchers looked at the first six months of the pandemic, from December 2019 until the end of the summer term in 2020. Although universities were generally very successful in managing the transition to online learning, campus lockdowns and health and safety issues, there was little data on the organisational decisions, actions, processes, practices and outcomes that shaped these responses. As such, this is what the team focused on in their research.

Reconstructing a crisis response

“There is an assumption that global research universities such as UCL should be able to respond quickly, efficiently and effectively to an unexpected crisis,” says Tatiana, Director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at UCL. “This was the case for UCL. But you need to conduct a fine grained reconstruction of events after a crisis emerges to understand exactly how various responses shaped different outcomes.” This is what the research team set out to do with this project.

Tatiana and her Faculty of Education and Society colleagues broke this down into different areas, in order to interrogate university responsiveness to Covid-19 from an organisational perspective. As well as looking at the impact different decisions had after the crisis broke, the team wanted to understand how universities could be better prepared to respond to the next global health crisis.

The team set about doing an empirical reconstruction of how the Covid-19 crisis was governed among relevant university stakeholders as the pandemic took hold. “Reconstruction work that relates to crisis management is difficult,” explains Tatiana. “Because everything happens quickly in a crisis, you tend not to remember why you did and didn’t do certain things. But we were able to reconstruct these responses in detail. We included things such as the number of meetings held, who was in the meetings, who made certain decisions and so on.”

Through the course of this project, the team conducted 20 interviews with senior management team members at UCL and Tohoku University. They also undertook a comprehensive literature review on crisis management, disaster preparedness and risk assessment in higher education and related sectors. Furthermore, other universities with an interest in the project have been able to contribute their own findings, which has enabled the team to draw on a wide range of experiences for the project.

The resilience of universities

As a result of the research, the team found that the manner in which universities took learning online, managed the health and safety of staff, and contributed research to the global effort against the pandemic was excellent. “This effort has been absolutely outstanding,” Tatiana says. On the other hand, the team found that the major differences between university responses stemmed from varying access to resources, financial pressures, and national policies relating to aspects such as lockdowns and border closures.

While the team looked at a number of universities, the responses of UCL and Tohoku University both brought useful experiences to the project. “UCL has a core structure for responding to emergencies,” Tatiana explains. “But it is quite decentralised otherwise, which allowed a lot of autonomy at the faculty level.” This helped the university respond to the crisis quickly. On the other hand, Tohoku University is close to Fukushima, and has had to deal with a number of earthquakes in the past. This experience laid the foundations for dealing with physical crises effectively, which was useful in the response to Covid-19.

As well as helping universities fine tune their responses to crises, this project also shows how universities contribute to building more resilient societies. “Universities have a leading role in societies,” says Tatiana. “Because they are organised in a certain way, there really are some things universities can do better than others. We’ve already seen this in cases of conflict and war, and now we’ve seen it with Covid-19. This project has collated the evidence on how this can be done, which can be taken forward by more organisations to the next unfortunate crisis.”

Tatiana and the team are using this project as a basis for creating a network of universities across multiple countries to continue exploring the topic. The UCL and Tohoku teams will also seek to build interdisciplinary collaboration with the disaster management departments at both universities to develop their work in an interdisciplinary way. “I’m very grateful for the UCL Global Engagement Funds,” says Tatiana. “Smaller funds like this are vital for getting projects off the ground.”


For the latest news about UCL’s international activity, partnerships and opportunities, subscribe to our bimonthly Global Update newsletter.