What will be the “new normal” for higher education?

It seems like we’ve gone from everyone talking about a “difficult and unprecedented time” to the “new normal”. Wherever you stand on buzzwords, there’s no denying that the world as we know has changed forever – and education organisations are right in the midst of trying to adapt to this new world. Institutions of higher learning have been pillars of their communities – and now more than ever, they must lead the charge in innovation, education, and of course – research. 

In a previous post we discussed how universities and higher education organisations can deliver value to their wider communities – this is more vital than ever in building a sustainable economic and social future for the UK and beyond. 

As laid out in Universities UK’s document “Achieving stability in the higher education sector following COVID-19”, universities generate around £95 billion every year for the UK economy. They contribute to society and the economy by developing and delivering highly skilled workers, providing opportunities for people from a range of backgrounds to improve their life chances, conducting cutting-edge and impactful research, creating jobs, facilitating international partnerships and providing services and facilities that assist with civic leadership. There’s a serious risk to higher education institutions that they will not be able to deliver this extensive list of benefits in a post COVID-19 world. 

In their document, Universities UK have set out a package of measures that will help higher education institutions to remain stable in an uncertain time. Their measures include increasing funding, protecting student places and highlighting courses and programmes that support the need for key workers. 

These are all vital actions, but just what exactly will the “new normal” look like for higher education organisations in a post COVID world? 


Online learning – the way forward?

It seems fairly obvious that a move towards online-only or blended courses will be a necessity – particular as a number of UK universities have announced that they will not be opening their campuses in 2020, and some, such as Cambridge, into 2021. 

In both public and private sectors, many have predicted that more meetings, lectures and seminars will be delivered online, and remote working will be a much more common practice in all types of organisations. In the case of the University of Cambridge, their decision not to open their doors until at least 2022, has been met with a mixed response, particularly from students. Many are concerned about how it will impact them socially, as well as their mental health. 

While technology consultants are lauding this as the new age of technology in HE, many in the sector are quick to point out it is no silver bullet. Peter C. Herman, Professor of English Literature at San Diego University, conducted a survey with his students, who due to the nature of this academic year, had experienced both face-to-face and online learning back-to-back. All of his students were incredibly negative on the experience, stating that they felt shortchanged, that they were not being challenged, and they felt an overall sense of loss. 

So while technology certainly can – and will be – an enabler, learning has to be driven by the faculty, and tailored to their students to ensure they’re getting maximum value. It’s not just a case of directly transitioning existing materials and teaching styles to Zoom.


The economic impact

It’s thought that universities could take a hit of up to £760 million from students deferring to the next academic year – reluctant to join or continue with online-only courses. A survey found that around 17% of undergraduates said they would not apply for September 2020 if the model was to be blended learning, with a reliance on online classes. 

The crisis has also had an impact on student perception of university. A recent annual survey found that 31% of students said that their courses were poor value for money, up from 29% last year. Many felt that because of strikes and coronavirus, there had been massive gaps in their learning. A quarter of respondents reported dissatisfaction with their tuition fees, stating that they weren’t clear on how they were spent. 

While it’s certainly not the higher education sector’s fault that classes have been disrupted because of a global pandemic, the call for clarity on the situation is loud and clear. Students need to know what to expect, and what they will be getting for their tuition fees, or universities could be set to lose millions or even billions in revenue. 


Increased collaboration

Universities on a national and international scale regular form partnerships and collaborate to tackle global issues. And what’s happening right now is a pretty big global issue – so higher education institutions around the world will no doubt need to form more partnerships to help solve a new raft of challenges. 

Imperial College London have just forged a new partnership with Tsinghua University in Beijing, speaking to the need to collaborate and cooperate to solve the direct challenge of the virus and the associated impact on the global economy and society. Together, the two universities are in talks to set up a Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Hub, working to find a way to produce a vaccine rapidly in vast quantities. 

Outside of specific partnerships forged during the pandemic, many in the sector are calling for a new approach to partnerships and to internationalisation – investing to develop the right culture, share the resources, and uncover more opportunities to collaborate which will benefit the global society and economy. 


As is the case for so many industries and sectors, both private and public, the future is a little murky. But as we’ve discussed in this post, there’s no question that this pandemic has sparked what will be a revolution for higher education – pushing institutions to innovate and collaborate in new ways to solve new challenges. 

DigiPitch is an opportunity for suppliers and senior leaders in the public sector to simplify the engagement process, collaborate and innovate to find solutions to the new normal. Find out more.



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