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19 June 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:51pm

How universities can embrace the post-Covid future

By implementing long-overdue reforms, the higher education sector has a strong chance of surviving the crisis, and being stronger for it.

By Peter Dolton

University vice-chancellors struggling to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic may find it hard to believe, but the long-term prospects for the UK’s high education (HE) sector are not altogether negative. There is no doubt that Covid-19 may have devastating short-term impacts on universities and the students they serve. But by taking the right decisions now, universities can ensure they emerge from this crisis in a more robust state than they went into it.

When Covid-19 has run its course or there is a vaccine, the world will surely turn. In the end, the UK will be open for business again. We still have some of the world’s best universities in terms of tuition and research. The way in which the academic community has responded to the current pandemic is further grounds for optimism. At the time of writing there have been more than 7,000 research articles written on the science and impact of Covid-19. This outpouring has also been accompanied by an unprecedented level of collaboration and sharing of data and computer code. 

A further positive impact of the present pandemic on higher education is the sudden embracing of online conferences and teaching technology. Prior to the pandemic we had the technology for it to be different — it was there waiting for us — but not the impetus and will to use it. The consequences of this are potentially enormous. People all over the world can learn and teach to huge audiences at close to zero marginal cost. This will revolutionise the delivery of higher education and research and build on the rise of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). But universities will need to undergo radical reform to turn this potential into actual gain. 

This will involve learning some painful lessons. The first is the mistake of over-reliance on postgraduate students from overseas — especially if the vast majority are coming from one country, in the UK’s case China. The number of Chinese students rose from 25,000 in 2006 to almost 90,000 by 2019, leaving the UK system, reliant on income from overseas student fees, vulnerable to shock events such as Covid-19. The second was the subsidy of research by charging high fees whether for British or overseas students and for charging the same fees for each subject. Last year’s Augar review put the sector on notice of the need for reform, but the impact of Covid-19 has made radical change an urgent necessity. What is overdue is a  reappraisal of what each course costs to run. One idea is to restructure fees differentially by subject.

The fracturing of universities’ links with their local communities and provision of courses to the local population should also be examined. Most universities between 1990-2015 chose to dispense with their adult education departments as  higher fees from foreign students became a possibility. This is more than regrettable, as this had been a clear way of universities providing a beneficial service to their local community. Further, changes in Britain’s demographic make-up mean that there are far more healthy 60- to 80-year-olds who wish to continue to study in their advancing years. Universities can fill that gap, and shore up their budgets at the same time.

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In parallel, there should be an acknowledgement of the importance of technical education and apprenticeships. We can learn much from Germany — not only about the handling of the Covid-19 epidemic but also the development and sustainability of a high-class vocational training system. The  snobbish view that technical training is something done by other people’s children should be relegated to the past. Young people also need to be aware of the burden of the debts that doing an undergraduate degree will exact on their future lives.

While the potential of virtual teaching and resources will surely be a lifesaver for educational institutions, universities should not rush headlong into the development of online courses in a bid to shore up their finances.

This market is already overcrowded thanks to the huge rise of the MOOCs. There may well be a case for re-structuring some courses around existing excellent online material by focussing on problem classes or seminars to support the material that is already on the web.

Universities also need to review their administrative function. Competition between universities for vice chancellors, deans and associated administrative officers has culminated in a radical increase in the number of senior administrative posts on large salaries. If this was ever sustainable on the back of high fees and foreign student income, it certainly will not be now.

But the main issue facing universities is how to not go broke in the short run and how to plan for the opening of campuses in September. Clearly the two are inextricably interlinked, as the avoidance of the former will be achieved by the realisation of the latter. Universities will have contingency plans for these eventualities. Those prudent universities with contingency funds will need to use them; this is not a time to sit on reserves. Those without reserves or endowments will have little alternative to seek short-term loans at low interest rates or make representations to central government for special financial help.

While the immediate impacts of Covid-19 are horrendous, the long-term outlook for universities is still hopeful as long its leaders take radical action to reassess their administrative structures, look at the types of courses they offer and what they charge for those, blend online and traditional teaching, and focus more on their local communities rather than relying on overseas students.

If the HE sector shows willingness to reform, that will make it easier for the government to play its part. At the heart of this is reassuring current and future students by ending punitive interest rates on student loans, reducing fees, and providing employment subsidies to employers who create opportunities for new graduates. By focusing on implementing long-overdue reforms, the HE sector has a strong chance of surviving the crisis, and being stronger for it.

Peter Dolton is research Director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research 

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