Beyond the Curve: The Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education

Jo Johnson, Chairman of ApplyBoard’s Advisory Board, moderated an impactful roundtable discussion with several UK experts in higher education this week. The webinar, titled, “Beyond the Curve: The Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education,” had over 2,300 registrants from more than 90 countries around the world.

Panelists included:

  • Jo Johnson, Chairman of ApplyBoard’s Advisory Board and former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation in the UK
  • Maddalaine Ansell, Director of Education at the British Council
  • Mary Curnock Cook, former Chief Executive at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS)
  • Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)
  • Mark Leach, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the higher education blog WonkHE

Over an hour, the group discussed the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in the UK and globally, and what we might expect in the future. While the panelists were UK-based, the lessons they imparted are applicable to higher education around the world. Here are five key takeaways from the webinar:

Sector-Specific Government Support for Higher Education

While the government is offering subsidies and bailout packages across industries, many higher education experts are calling for sector-specific support for schools, for several key reasons.

The higher education sector is incredibly diverse; schools have varied access to finances and other resources based on their individual histories. The industry has faced challenges even before the pandemic, as a dip in 18-year-olds has left schools scrambling to recruit full-time undergraduate students in a much more competitive market. While schools are generally prepared financially year to year, an unexpected decline of numbers locally and now from international recruitment is a shock for the sector.

Ultimately, educational institutions don’t operate in the same way other businesses do. Institutions have limited spaces available, and the collapse of one would eventually lead to significantly fewer spots for students across the board.

Higher education is needed now more than ever. In what is likely an upcoming global recession, education will be part of the key to our recovery. At this time, the actual fight against COVID-19 is being driven by countless university labs around the world. The collapse of higher education systems would prove detrimental to public health and many other sectors.

At the moment, every school is being affected by this crisis. While existing government support may help, some won’t apply to these institutions. By the end of this crisis, universities will be in more critical demand than ever as they push research forward and contribute to the larger community as significant employers.

While some experts think there shouldn’t be any conditions on sector-specific government support, that’s probably unrealistic. It’s reasonable for the government to have strings attached, but what those conditions are will have negative or positive effects. Suitable conditions might include support in the form of a loan rather than a grant, or additional funding dependent on institutions’ positioning in the autumn. If the crisis doesn’t affect them as drastically as predicted, it would be fair for the government to provide less financial aid.

Higher education experts often talk about the sector from a supply side, which can be less productive when asking the government for a sector-specific bailout. Refocusing the conversation to the impact higher education has on graduates is a much more compelling and persuasive argument.

Making Changes in a Crisis

Some experts are trying to take advantage of this moment to force long-lasting change on higher education, but this is the wrong time to push these agendas forward. Schools should make these changes of their own accord, and not out of a crisis. While they will inevitably want to do things differently in the future, they need to get through this crisis first and make those decisions on solid ground.

Universities UK recently released a formula to control student numbers and manage competition for students among institutions. The intention behind this policy is to prevent some institutions from taking on so many new students that others are pushed into financial difficulty.

Mary Curnock Cook says that ultimately, student interests are paramount. Capping available places don’t just smooth the market; it caps students’ ambition and the choices they have in their education. Despite the difficulties the COVID-19 crisis has brought on the higher education sector, students should be able to take any possible benefit they can from it, such as applying for a school they may not otherwise be accepted to.

The number of 18-year-olds in the UK and other countries will increase again for over the next ten years, and any capping of student numbers would risk restricting places at a time when more is needed.

Even with a cap on students, some universities would still find themselves in financial hardship. This problem for universities that fail to recruit will need to be addressed. If policymakers put students first, it will be easier for them to find the right answers. Injecting confidence into the system for students is the best financial protection the sector can have.

Navigating Institutional Collapse

The implications of an educational institute collapsing are more extensive than the closure of another business. Aside from the substantial job loss, a collapse would cause, the switching costs for students would be unimaginable.

Were this to happen, the reputation of the country’s higher education would be at stake. The impact would be dependent on how the situation was managed, but it has the potential to affect student recruitment negatively. The international student market is highly competitive and likely to be even more competitive in the future.

The UK’s Office for Students has said they’re working with the Department for Education and universities to ensure students have the information and guidance they need, keeping students and educational institutes as up to date as possible. As an organization focused on student success, panelists questioned why they hadn’t made a clearer statement on their role in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on students.

The Future of Online Education

As educational institutions are moving courses and resources online, the difference between universities who have been investing in online education purposefully over a long period of time and those who have made it a lower priority is becoming uncomfortably obvious. There will inevitably be long-term effects from the pandemic on student learning experiences, engagement, and overall success.

Something that has become clear from this experience is that many courses can be delivered online, and some students will undoubtedly demand that. For more practical programs, online delivery does not always make sense, but it’s clear that with a push, the higher education sector was able to deliver remotely.

Online learning has been developed for decades, and there’s a difference between learning designed for the digital experience, and the move to remote that has had to happen so quickly. While there are positives and negatives to this delivery, universities have had to innovate quickly.

At the same time, there are significant risks to students who didn’t expect an online education. Questions are being raised about how engaged students are at this moment, especially given other difficulties and emotional distress they may be facing. Unfortunately, we probably won’t know the answer to this for months or potentially even years.

Surprisingly, online learning is not the preferred delivery method for many students. Polls have shown that traditional lectures are still students’ select styles of learning. Even without conventional lectures, face-to-face learning still topped the list. The residential experience has also been a historically popular opportunity for students to transition to adulthood.

This indicates that students will probably still want the full campus experience in the future. Still, there may be more opportunities for blended learning, such as online teaching resources, services, and more access to academics online.

Of course, many students will prefer the online experience. For some, this may be the only way they can access education. Countries with scattered and remote populations can often only be offered education through distance learning. Students who need to work while they study, or have to live at home, could benefit significantly from online knowledge blended with more traditional delivery.

The pandemic has had enough of an impact to change people’s attitudes long-term. Moving forward, expectations might shift for students and parents. We also need to be aware that physical proximity may be a concern when schools open their doors again. The higher education sector will have to observe these responses to see what people need on the other side of this pandemic.

If there’s one thing schools can take away from the shift to remote learning, it’s how to think about incorporating digital technology better into the education system. Educators need more tools to communicate with students online. Instructors may realize that there are many different ways to approach teaching and learning.

Moving Forward Post-Pandemic

One opportunity this crisis has presented is the value the public is seeing in public services. Modern universities that focus on these areas, such as nursing and practice-based search, may see better recognition moving forward.

The government needs to think ahead to what will happen when the borders open again, though, if we receive fewer international students or see a reluctance to travel. The competition for those students is already ramping up, and the government should consider how it can support the sector in that pursuit.

Each country’s education sector will have to focus on actively marketing the quality of their specific education opportunities, paying particular attention to the well-being of students and signalling its welcome to international students. The UK, for example, should focus on promoting its improved graduate employment route for international students in particular.

The UK is home to world-renowned universities with individual reputations that speak for themselves. The country has many strengths in the international student market, such as its range of high-quality disciplines, diverse campuses, and English-language delivery. That being said, the global student market for many countries will have to be rebuilt in some ways.

Governments will need to demonstrate that their countries are a safe place for students to be. Criticism the UK faced for their response to the pandemic will likely affect their market negatively. Fee rebates could be an effective and inexpensive way to instill confidence in local students and send a positive message to prospective international students. Looking ahead, students will likely care about their health and safety in a new way, and universities may have to build on the government’s response to extend their welcome.

International students are a significant asset to higher education and countries as a whole. The data shows that students like learning alongside people from other countries, which is an excellent experience for the global labour market. The quality of research is also better when people from different countries are involved.

The higher education sector will need to expand its reach to more source countries for students. When the pandemic is over, and the world begins the process of rebuilding, schools and governments should prioritize demonstrating their interest and support for international students.

Thank you to our panelists and attendees for the incredibly insightful webinar! We look forward to the future of the international education sector. You can watch the full webinar below: