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What will COVID-19 mean for universities and colleges in 2020/2021?

Discover what the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is for students and teachers looking to return to universities and colleges in the academic year ahead.

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According to UNESCO, the outbreak of COVID-19 has disrupted the education of 1.5 billion learners across the world – 91% of the world’s student population.

In the university and college sector, institutions have been forced to close the doors to their campuses. Students studying practical courses have had to put their learning on hold. Those studying theoretical courses have had to shift to learning at home, with teaching moving online.

This is a level of disruption the likes of which we have never seen before. Many are speculating that degree delivery at universities and colleges will never be the same again.  

What will the coronavirus pandemic mean for higher education in the coming year? Here are some trends we expect to see.

More collaboration between universities

While, in the short-term at least, the above trend is ominous for the university sector, we may see some positives arising from adversity.

In the UK, the pressures of marketised higher education and preponderance of rankings has led to high levels of competition between institutions. Some commentators anticipate that the pandemic will reverse this trend, leading to more collaboration among universities. The necessities of this crisis will see universities work together to ensure that the needs of incoming and current students and researchers are met.

Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, also advocates a stronger union between UK universities under the aegis of Universities UK. This would give the sector a more coherent voice in dialogue with the media and government. The role universities have played in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic will have built some goodwill for the sector. This will help reassert the relevance of universities to society as a public good, deserving of funding and protection.

In February, Universities UK president Julie Buckingham made the case in The Telegraph for the creation of a framework that would measure the positive impact of universities beyond the boosting of graduate salaries. At a time of national need, this may be a good time for the sector to come together and make this case. 

One of the proposed indicators in this framework is the proportion of graduates working in essential public services. Given the reassertion of the importance of nurses in recent months, we might presume few would object too strongly to this measure.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen universities, research institutes, and industry come together to advance our understanding of the epidemic. These links may well set down a precedent for further positive research collaborations to find the solutions to shared challenges.

Below, we consider the impact of shifting teaching online. Some speculate we may also see research following suit, creating a paradigm which facilitates greater inter-institution collaboration as the walls, figuratively at least, come down.

The HE sector could play a role in recovery

In February, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report calling for a reassessment of the role that universities can play in serving society’s needs.

This report calls for a focus on skills at both a local and national level, through a foundation of a National Skills Council with access to £400 million worth government funds. It also proposes that a share of national funding for innovation is rerouted to local investment, and a civic index is created to help monitor institutions’ local engagement. To improve access, the report tables the scrapping of first-year fees for those who are the first in their family to attend to university, and that outreach programmes are strengthened.

However, these are all recommendations, and there is no guarantee that all or any of the suggestions are taken up by the UK government. With economic growth and employment likely to be hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic, the issue of how to bring about recovery will be the most pressing issue of the next few years.

Though this report was written and published before the coronavirus pandemic had hit the UK, it outlines the ways in which universities can be the backbone of recovery. By focusing on the creation of skills, civic engagement, and widening access – particularly at a time of lower employment – the worst damage could be at least mitigated. The regional focus also would serve to boost local economies and job creation, rather than just looking to London.

This report builds on the Augar Review, published in May 2019. This headline recommendation of this report was the lowering of annual tuition fees from £9,000 to £7,500 and the reintroduction of means-tested grants up to £3,000. The review also advocates moving away from structuring loans around undergraduate degrees, and instead packaging them as a lifelong learning allowance.

These recommendations consider FE and HE as being part of one system, geared towards plugging national and regional skills gaps. It also pushes for giving universities the right to award certifications at lower levels than a full-length degree. This greater flexibility would be intended to allow universities to serve the needs of a more diverse student base, and to effectively meet collective needs.

Teaching will shift online, requiring new skills for educators

With social-distancing measures forcing universities to close down physical campuses, much provision has been moved online by necessity. Cambridge University recently announced it was moving all lectures online until the summer of 2021. Other universities are likely to follow suit.

While no one was expecting such a drastic shift, online teaching has already been becoming increasingly prevalent in recent years.  

In the US, according to the Department of Education, 34.7% of enrolled students took at least one online class in 2018. While a good proportion of these (16.3%) were enrolled in fully-online degrees, most (18.4%) took an online class as part of a traditional degree. This latter figure increased from 16.5% in 2016. Online teaching, then, was already becoming a crucial part of higher education delivery.

We don’t have equivalent figures for the UK. We have seen, however, increasing numbers of students from countries like the US, Canada, and Australia enrolling in online degrees, even in the face of a short-term decline in overall numbers. We might also note that the first-year cohort at The Open University is more than twice the size of any other university.

Will the coronavirus pandemic accelerate the shift to online university teaching? 

Some commentators have speculated that this will be a ‘black swan’ moment – an unforeseeable event that changes things forever. Despite the case being made for incorporating online education over the years, it has traditionally been seen as the poor relation of in-person provision. But following its centrality during the coronavirus outbreak, might faculty and students become converts to the flexibility and possibilities of online higher education?

In theory this could be a success. There is no evidence that classroom-based learning produces better outcomes. On the other hand, it has also been shown that online provision often leaves a lot to be desired, potentially exacerbating already existing attainment gaps.

The latter findings are particularly in reference to for-profit provision in the US, often targeted at traditionally left-behind learners. At the root of the inequity in evidence here is a lack of meaningful interactions between staff and students, and among students themselves. Social interaction has been proven elsewhere to be at the heart of positive learning outcomes in online learning.

This shows how successful course design and delivery are key for online teaching to be a success. Zoom lectures and emailed crib sheets are not enough. There needs to be real contact between students and staff.

The speed at which the coronavirus pandemic has turned the HE sector on its head means that many universities, academics, and curriculum designers will have been caught unprepared. For online delivery to be a success, institutions have to wholeheartedly commit themselves, investing and strategizing.  

The need to prepare instructors

Potentially, these changes will be for the better – widening access, shifting in-person interactions to be more productive, and stripping away competition in favour of collaboration.

For these positive changes to be brought about, however, educators must know how to teach online successfully. The good news is that all the pieces necessary for successful online education delivery are in place. Many students are digital natives, adept at using technology in every aspect of their lives. Course designers and technologists at universities and colleges are there to support teaching staff, and a wide range of general and specialised software is available to aid delivery.

Many tertiary educators are not entirely comfortable with online teaching. Only 9% of academics prefer to teach in a mostly online environment, according to a 2019 study from Educause. And while 51% are comfortable with blended learning environments, most of these (30%) prefer a mostly face-to-face teaching environment. No less than 43% of survey respondents preferred an exclusively face-to-face teaching environment.

This online shift will come as a shock to the system, then. But there is no escape from the necessities engendered by social distancing. It’s not just the immediate future for which tutors need to be ready – it may be that the crisis changes higher education in the long-term.

In order to support those responsible for the delivery of online education, FutureLearn and The Open University are offering Online Teaching: Creating Courses for Adult Learners.

This microcredential is aimed at those in the sector responsible for designing online courses – from lecturers to course designers to technologists and is part of a planned suite of programs addressing all aspects of online education.

Discover the Online Teaching microcredential

Learners will explore how adults learn online through the prism of various key theories. They will evaluate different technologies and delivery methods, gauging them for appropriateness for specific settings and learners and ensuring inclusivity and accessibility.

The ultimate goal will be to furnish educators with the necessary skills and expertise to design and deliver effective online courses.


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