Evolve or die – the challenge for HE leadership in the post-pandemic world

Nick Isles raises the alarm on the existential scale of change that will be expected from universities in the decade ahead.

Nick Isles is the chief executive officer at Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design.

We can only really guess at the scale of the economic shock the world is facing. Bail-outs, subsidies and furloughs have been operated by governments around the globe as a means of maintaining social stability and in many cases, staving off mass destitution.

As of mid-December, in the UK for example 9.9 million jobs had been cumulatively furloughed from 1.2 million different employers. Unless the government decides out of the blue to introduce some form of universal basic income, this economic life support system will eventually be switched off.

That there will be a tidal wave of business failures seems inevitable. The higher education sector will probably not fall victim to the initial deluge, but universities that fail to adapt quickly face an uncertain future.

In 2019-20 281 different HE providers, the vast majority of them competing universities, returned data to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Two and a half million students were enrolled last year with one in five coming from outside the UK.

The likelihood of encouraging such high numbers of foreign students to come here to study in the short to medium term is slim. Half of those coming from overseas are from China where it’s now estimated a new university opens every week. The seemingly endless flow of customers from the east upon which so many have relied must surely ebb to a trickle before long.

A further third of overseas students come from the EU. With the end of mutual funding and the UK’s exit from the Erasmus programme that supply is also likely largely to dry up. While the number of eighteen year olds in the UK population is now expected to rise steadily over the next few years it seems a very optimistic view to suppose that these will be sufficient to plug the gap.

The question with which HE institutions must wrestle is what they will need to do to entice enough students in to stay afloat. The sector faces greater domestic competition. The recently published Skills for Jobs white paper demonstrates that central government is starting to get the FE sector. For the first time there are concrete commitments to drag post-16 education outside universities to something like parity of esteem with HE. The introduction of the new Institutes of Technology (IoTs) will offer work-based qualifications at levels four and five with attractive earn while you learn capabilities, and at a significantly lower cost than the price of a university degree.

What’s more, the image of “going off to university” has taken a severe battering over the past year. The stranding of students in halls of residence because of the pandemic has not been a great look. The reluctance (often understandable) of universities to offer significant refunds to students adversely affected has caused some disgruntlement and drawn further attention to the expense of a university experience.

The highly variable quality of online teaching hasn’t helped. Add to this a near future where many parents will be in financial difficulty because of economic contraction and it adds up to a number of blows which institutions might individually absorb – but all at once?

Stand out from the crowd

Some will ride out the storm more easily than others for reasons of excellence or location or some other particular USP. Russell Group universities will still be aspirational; others in buzzing cities or beautiful countryside have their own draw as a lovely place to spend three years.

At Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design we benefit from being at the heart of Soho, perfectly placed for the industry our students are learning about and with a nightlife sans pareil. We also benefit from being part of a giant global brand, with all the enviable access that gives us to guest speakers of real stature such as Stella McCArtney or Anna Wintour.

The question vice-chancellors need to be asking themselves is, “What makes us stand out from the crowd?” They will have to find an answer very quickly by calculating what changes the post-Covid generation will want and demand from them.

Many school leavers will be looking for imaginative alternatives to the traditional three year undergraduate degree. Blended learning is something they will have experienced on some level over the past twelve months and those universities which fail to develop their online offerings will struggle.

Customisation will be key. Students may want credit-based systems enabling them to enrol for courses from an appetising menu. We will see a rise in part-timeism. Why shouldn’t the option be available for people to take a degree while working and to spread out their modules over four or five years or even longer?

Others will want the kind of concentrated experience offered by those like our partner institution, the University of Buckingham, where two year degrees are the norm. The amount of time they desire to spend actually on site as opposed to learning remotely from home will vary, but flexibility to allow as many options as possible will become expected as standard.

The benefits could be enormous and long-lasting. While the market for bringing international students to the country to study is a potentially shrinking one that doesn’t mean we can’t reach out to increase that long-distance learning element, if we get the online offering right.

Price sensitive

Flexible studies will also require flexible fees. The sector cannot realistically expect to uphold the status quo. It will not be long before some institutions decide to bolster their enrolment figures by undercutting their competitors. It will surely be too great a temptation for those who struggle first.

Additionally, there is already significant unrest in current cohorts around universities charging fees identical to those of pre-Covid times. This line will not hold, although it might be intervention from government which finally gives rise to a genuinely competitive market for tuition fees. Government seems clear that January’s freeze in the tuition fee limit is distinctly temporary and there may be a political will to see the cuts suggested by Augar imposed or even exceeded.

Whatever happens the fees regime must be seen to be as flexible as the different learning options currently emerging. There is already public disquiet over the behaviour of many institutions towards their students during the crisis and this must be addressed to avoid significant reputational damage.

Flexibility and quite possibly regulation will also be demanded in the student accommodation market. Halls of residence may have to become less like boarding schools and more like hotels in terms of their service delivery. Students engaged in blended learning may not need a room for the entire academic year but that doesn’t mean they won’t expect somewhere adequate to stay when they are on campus and at an acceptable price.

Digitising student experience

It would be easy to dismiss the results of the ONS Student Covid Insights Survey as being a one-off because of the circumstances in which the evidence was collated. 29 per cent of students were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their experience in the autumn term and 53 per cent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the social side of their experience. Those who come after them will have seen weeks of images on the nightly news of unhappy students locked in halls and they will be determined that their experience should be very different. They will be in no mood just to take what they’re given.

Another recent survey from Jisc, Universities UK and others to inform the Learning and teaching reimagined project contains some valuable insights into the future strategies students will come to expect from their chosen HE institution. It suggests they will still expect some social element to their learning experience and while this can’t all be virtual, universities will do well to put some creative thought into how they can facilitate that social element in both worlds. If students don’t have the option to meet up in the students’ union bar on any given night they will expect support in providing alternatives.

Online and blended learning is not just about being in another room away from the class. All courses will need to be modified at the very least, substantially reconstructed even, to make them appropriate for remote teaching.

What’s more, it would be a mistake to assume lecturers are as confident with the technology as their students. It would be prudent to have some frank conversations with staff to find out how comfortable they are with the blended concept and to offer sympathetic training where needed. Many will try to bluff it out for fear of losing face, but students will very quickly identify who does and doesn’t get it, and word will spread.

As we have seen with schools in disadvantaged areas, digital poverty is a serious problem. Ministers may respond by providing some grant money on a means-tested basis for students needing support, but it’s far more likely they will expect the universities themselves to find imaginative solutions. Those that offer genuine support to those in need in terms of equipment and data allowances will automatically be more attractive to applicants who don’t have easy access to them.

In short, universities and other HE institutions will have to work harder to enrol the students they want in what will increasingly be more of a buyer’s market. The UK’s tradition as a world leader in higher education is enviable and justified, but to be preserved we must all be fleet of foot so we can bring the best of that tradition into a world which will expect more from us.

One response to “Evolve or die – the challenge for HE leadership in the post-pandemic world

  1. Hi Nick, I was very intrigued to see this prediction above:

    “It will not be long before some institutions decide to bolster their enrolment figures by undercutting their competitors”

    Since when the new fee regime was introduced in 12/13 – the few insititutions that did explore an approach of this type quickly backtracked – presumably recognising that a discount approach did not land effectively in the ‘marketplace’, when applied to a commodity that we might describe as a middle class luxury good, with elements of conspicuous consumption.

    Also I think the statement that “universities [are] charging fees identical to those of pre-Covid times” belies the fact that the home UG FT fees have been frozen at £9,250 since 17/18, and will stay there until at least 22/23, whilst there has been upward inflationary pressure on cost for most of the intervening period.

    As you say, rumour suggests there is Goverment ambition to amend fee levels in a downward direction, but I’m not sure I can perceive how that woud lead to greater likelihood of price differentiation, through some sort of double dip mechanism?

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