Imagining a more flexible post-pandemic university

Seven academics think through the implications for staff and students of building a more flexible higher education sector post-Covid-19.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” as a process of industrial mutation that revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one and creating a new one.

The theory of creative destruction assumes that long-standing arrangements and assumptions must be destroyed to free up resources and energy to be deployed for innovation.

Arguably, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have forced such creative destruction on the global HE sector and we are now in a position to reflect on what will be the dominant design in HE provision that will emerge over the forthcoming months and years.

The following is a version of what could emerge, based on discussion at an online event held in July 2020 with policymakers, managers and members of the professoriate from across the globe.

Bending without breaking

One of the most significant expected changes is the need for flexibility. This is flexibility that goes beyond merely delivering a blended format of lecture material to an all-encompassing flexibility that embraces all aspects of delivery.

The dominant design to emerge from this period of creative destruction is likely to be highly flexible and blended, with a majority of the course delivery being delivered online – requiring flexible course design for hybrid delivery. There will still be some campus delivery but this will be limited in scope.

As university managers see the potential benefit for gradually moving course delivery online focus will shift from the physical estate of the university to creating a virtual estate that not only supports education but also fosters community and belonging to an institution.

To drive such flexibility university administrators must first understand and manage the new and emerging expectations that will come with the new intake. There needs to be provision to ensure that students’ expectations are firmly embedded in a realistic model of the new university.

For example, the dated idea of “contact time” must be removed from the discourse and replaced with more meaningful terms such as direct and self-directed study. It is more expensive and time consuming to produce high quality online education that is aligned to the development of a more transferable and real-world skill set than traditional lectures. The perception that this mode of delivery is in any way inferior to traditional face-to-face delivery is a misconception that may prevent effective evolution of HE in the post Covid-19 era.

Yet even with a completely online delivery there may still be a need for some students to participate in campus-based activities. The need for specialised equipment in some courses or even the acceptance that, for whatever reason, some students simply can’t study at home may ensure the development of flexibility in delivery both within and beyond the campus.

Here the students themselves will have a role in shaping the type of flexibility that they need in their studies as they fit their studies into increasingly complex lives held in and around the spectre of rolling lockdowns. Universities will need to meet additional support requirements associated with such flexibility.

The lack of face to face contact will likely raise anxiety levels in many students (and lecturing staff) which may impact motivation. So to achieve their full potential with their education, students will need to experience intrinsic motivation and to engage in learning for its own sake, with a full sense of independence and self-perceived competence. Flexible delivery should be reflective and provide the student with opportunities for clear formative feedback to enable such motivation to develop.

A new paradigm for staff

The working environment for lecturing staff should also embrace this new flexibility for the sector to thrive. Established work-based practices may now cause significant issues and staff may need to be supported in up-skilling in digital practice.

The practice of blurring job boundaries to fill administrative roles or the effects of the ubiquitous imposter syndrome as well as the time-consuming nature of developing online resources may now lead to significant negative effects on staff mental health when they are faced with delivering entire courses and interacting with potentially hundreds of students online in a uniquely flexible fashion.

A cultural shift that highlights the benefits of a flexible working environment that empowers staff to contribute to the institutional portfolio around their own day-to-day lives would be significant in ensuring the mental health of staff.

Institutions should develop strategies that drive excellent relationships between staff and students. By involving various student societies, institutional managers can encourage the undergraduate student to become a true partner in their learning.

The strategy here is to place the relationship between student and teacher at the heart of all university activities and also, perhaps more importantly, empower both parties to make decisions. This will certainly see the rise of intrinsic motivation in a generation of learners in a global HE sector that will emerge from this period of creative destruction.

With the uncertainty around travel but the continuing growth of globalisation of our curriculum a blended and flexible approach is the only approach that will carry us through the next few years. A university structure that is slow to change will need to break itself up or risk being broken by the market. Students simply don’t want to be told to come to campus and highly flexible delivery is key.

Universities should not attempt to return to what they were. This is the prime opportunity to change things – the opportunity to put a new design into practice that is relevant for the twenty first century and not embedded in the past.

One response to “Imagining a more flexible post-pandemic university

  1. This article could be improved by replacing the abbreviation “HE” with “higher education”. Some people (especially those who do not regularly read articles on this website) might not easily guess what it stands for, and the phrase isn’t that long, so there is no need to shorten it. Minimizing the use of abbreviations is generally good for accessibility.

    There are several run on sentences that should at minimum be broken up with a comma, but would probably be more readable if broken up into separate sentences.
    For example, this paragraph length block of text is currently written as a single sentence:

    “The practice of blurring job boundaries to fill administrative roles or the effects of the ubiquitous imposter syndrome as well as the time-consuming nature of developing online resources may now lead to significant negative effects on staff mental health when they are faced with delivering entire courses and interacting with potentially hundreds of students online in a uniquely flexible fashion.”

    Some major claims are made without any evidence to support them. For example, “The perception that this mode of delivery is in any way inferior to traditional face-to-face delivery is a misconception that may prevent effective evolution of HE in the post Covid-19 era.”

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