This article is more than 3 years old

What could we lose in the transition to a “new normal”?

This article is more than 3 years old

Alan Sutherland is CEO at Surrey SU

It would be a fool’s errand to even begin to predict what might change in UK universities as a result of the global pandemic.

So, with that in mind I thought I’d at least have a look at what the future might hold for the student experience, reflecting some of the issues that students have been talking to our student officers about.

The learning experience

There are plenty of people more versed and immersed in teaching and learning in a better position to pontificate on the impact that complete digital learning will have on the future of higher education, but it is worth noting two peripheral points.


‘The undergraduate honours course, occupying three or four years’ study of a single subject, culminating in a series of three-hour written examinations and a published class list, became an established institution of many English universities during the twentieth century. For most of the nineteenth century these features were peculiar to Oxford and Cambridge: the Oxford system originating in 1800 …’

The history of the University of Oxford vol VII, Curthoys

As one senior manager remarked to me a few weeks ago – when was the last time you had to provide a solution in the workplace in two hours with no access to the internet or textbooks?

We might hope that the burst of creativity injected into alternative assessments may finally see a revolution in the examination system – which many regard as an unrealistic test of memory rather than a way of testing the application of knowledge.

Degree classifications

Having a “safety net” or “no detriment” policy is now de rigueur for any self-respecting university, but what does this mean for those who rely on the degree classification system to guide their graduate recruitment?

The use of a no-detriment policy is not unlike the deployment of the Safety Car in Formula 1 – when there is a major incident the Safety Car is brought out and all the race cars are bunched up into one pack, eroding the advantage of the leaders and supporting those at the back.

Excusing for a moment the decimated graduate market, given this is such an amazingly unique set of circumstances – combined with the archaic finals system – how can a graduate recruiter make sense of the class of 2020?

This is the moment the sector could seize the initiative to add insight to degree classifications before the graduate market creates a metric which results in even greater mental stress to upcoming final years.

The campus experience

No matter how great the largesse from the treasury, many belts already strained to the limit are about to take on an even tighter burden. For me, campus architecture has been the great beneficiary of the tuition fee system. The unique campuses created in the aftermath of Robbins gave us some amazing concrete visions, which eventually gave way to bland utilitarianism of the 90’s – only to be revitalised for Open Day glory in the 21st century.

Finance will be harder to obtain, and cash reserves will be required for the barest of bare essentials – statutory requirements. Estates spending will surely be the battleground for recruitment in the forthcoming years as institutions struggle to maintain grounds and facilities. Given the time lag in major project timelines, capital spending adjustments will loom large over the experience of the next 3-4 cohorts.

On a smaller scale the cogs of campus life – the market stalls, traders, commercial services, and favourite local shops will have taken a huge hit over this period – and many students may eventually return to find some campus favourites no longer there, with fewer alternatives available to replace them.

The social experience

A great induction is the kick start every successful student experience needs, and that physical togetherness that creates powerful cohorts is looking less likely each week. The human connections that freshers make, both with others in their class, others with their social interests, sharing accommodation, and so on are what every Alumni office recognises is at the heart of the student experience.

This has matured over decades, lore and tradition mixed with innovation and technology to give us the modern freshers week. A zoom pub quiz doesn’t even come close. The inability for new students to form these lasting support networks will create a huge strain on an already mentally stressed generation.

Lest we forget a significant number of our upcoming students will have had their lives touched with tragedy from Covid-19. The social networks created allow students to ask “did anyone else understand that?” at the end of a lecture, or “I got this WhatsApp after our night out, should I reply to them?” at the end of an SU encounter.

It’s the unmarked learning that takes place in a university, the support network that gets a student through, encourages them on, and picks them up when they fall down. Medium to large SUs with substantial trading operations will be decimated by the end of this, and far more cautious in planning, having much smaller (if any) reserves to cover losses.

The living experience

Depending on the size (if any) of the economic “bounce back” there will be significantly less money available to support students next year. It’s been the case for many years that 1) the maintenance loan does not cover all living costs and 2) the parental contribution is not based on ability to pay.

As tragically for many students the ability for familial contribution will have suffered then they will have significantly less money to live on next year. Some students will certainly have to default on rent, except accommodation providers will no longer be able to move the next one in from the waiting list.

Private landlords who have over extended on buy to let will find their commercial debts unmanageable as the ability to pay ever increasing rent has disappeared, and will be faced with trying to convert a 5 bed HMO back into a 3 bed family house or hold a fire sale to release what dwindling equity they have.

In some university towns this (literal) cottage industry collapse could create real localised pressure on the housing market. The scant availability of part time work for students will exacerbate this problem for local communities who are so used to the injection from their local university of jobs and income.

Unfinished PBSA projects may lie idle, some may collapse mid year, and those not yet broken ground could well seek to amend planning permission to build something else, if indeed anything at all. In the words of Ted Heath, it shall be a harder winter than we have been used to.

The university spirit

Ironically, given so many facets of the student experience will be changed or rolled back, the global pandemic may be notable for winding the clock back to pre-marketisation days in UK universities. For now, the university sector once again feels like a community. I have had more conversations with counterparts across the region in the last ten weeks than I have had in the last ten years.

University VCs and senior management have put their students and staff first and shown a true kindness in their determination to protect their communities. Yes, there has been the odd rogue trying to capitalise, but this time round – so far at least – the community has not rushed to join those few, but put a stop to questionable tactics and dubious morals.

Just a few short weeks ago if you told anyone you worked in a university their view would more than likely be guided by a malformed headline about a mythical no platforming that didn’t happen. Hopefully, the public are beginning to see the true worth of a national industry that stepped up when it mattered.

One response to “What could we lose in the transition to a “new normal”?

  1. Excellent balanced article with real insights, food for thought and real considerations for how we responsibly and intelligently manage our way through this crisis.

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