Learners around the world expect HE to change after Covid-19

Pearson's second annual Global Learner Survey explores the views of more than 7,000 learners. Anna Jackson analyses the findings for higher education.

More than three quarters of learners around the world believe that education will fundamentally change because of the pandemic. They see online education as a permanent fixture, traditional degrees as more out of reach and learning as more self-directed.

Pearson has just released the results from our second Global Learner Survey, which sought the views of over 7000 people from seven countries, including 1000 from the UK, on education, careers and the future of work and technology.

Responses were collected in June 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s clear that learners expect education to look different after the pandemic.

Accelerated change

In the UK 86 per cent of respondents believe that online learning will be part of the higher education experience moving forward and 77 per cent think that more college/university students will attend school online versus attending a traditional school within ten years (versus 64 per cent in last year’s survey). Those figures make punchy reading, especially when you consider that pre-Covid the number of UK domiciled students taking a higher education distance learning course in the UK was fewer than 400,000 a year. They imply there is an expectation of accelerated change in higher education.

Online and blended cannot be poor relations

84 per cent of UK respondents agreed that students can still have a good university experience if some classes are held in person and some are held online. We know that the online experience during Covid-19 has been far from perfect, with huge variations in the quality of online teaching that has been provided across institutions. However, this data suggests that learners remain optimistic about online delivery and clearly see it as a core part of higher education going forward.

If this optimism is to continue, it’s critical that universities provide a high quality learning experience in September. In conversations with academics over the past five months we found that pre-Covid most had no online teaching experience and few have confidence in their ability to know what “good” looks like. If they believe that online is the poor relation to face to face, how can we expect them to motivate and inspire their students? Academics need reasons to believe in new modes of delivery.

Expectations of the civic role

84 per cent of UK respondents think that colleges and universities need to do more to help retrain or re skill unemployed workers and 87 per cent believe that colleges and universities should offer shorter courses or lower cost options to help those who are unemployed. 77 per cent think that colleges and universities focus too much on young students and should offer better options for working adults.

These findings speak to the role of universities as civic actors and place makers in their regions. The majority of survey respondents believe that universities have a responsibility to upskill the wider population and get people back to work.

With the Augar review expected to make a reappearance later this year, and a projected economic downturn generating a greater need for retraining, we’d expect to see increasing central support for shorter and more flexible courses. If higher education providers can look beyond the provision of standard undergraduate and postgraduate education (albeit that’s easier said than done given current pressures) there are clear opportunities to support the re-skilling effort and engage with non-typical higher education learners.

Technology increasing inequality

77 per cent of people believe that online learning will give people more access to a quality education. At the same time, 83 per cent of UK respondents think that the Covid-19 pandemic has made the digital divide more obvious between those who have access to technology for learning and those who don’t. 81 per cent believe that online learning will increase the inequality for those who can’t access or afford technology.

Technology is seen as both creating access and inequality. This has already been flagged as a major concern for UK universities coming into the new academic year. In May the Sutton Trust reported that six per cent of students do not have sufficient access to computers or devices required for learning and assessment and five per cent said that they do not have sufficient internet access.

Core skills are critical work skills

When asked which skills would be most important for the future of work in a technology driven economy, 58 per cent of respondents said self-discipline, motivation and time management.

These skills are very similar to the ones that stood out in the recent Pearson/Wonkhe survey about student expectations. When respondents were asked which skills they thought students arriving in September would most need, independent learning and project/time management were two of the top three. 71 per cent said they would struggle with motivation if there was limited face to face teaching in September.

The role of higher education in developing self-management and autonomous learning is well-established, but there is now an acknowledgement that these skills are also critical for career success in a technology driven economy. 83 per cent of UK respondents think that the Covid-19 pandemic has permanently changed the way people work.

The case for TNE grows

Just 22 per cent of respondents in China and India think that you can do okay in life without a university degree compared with 60 per cent of UK respondents, up from 57 per cent last year. Short-term there is an expectation, partly because of the stark levels of unemployment on the horizon, that learners will continue to study degrees.

However, opinions about the value of a degree are changing across the world. The survey suggests that markets like China, India and Brazil still value traditional degrees whereas people in the UK and US increasingly believe that you can achieve success without one.

Add to that the potential shift in international travel: 89 per cent of respondents in China and 79 per cent in India think that fewer people will go overseas for their studies as a result of the pandemic, and you have a strong case for renewed focus on transnational education.

For anyone who hoped education would just go back to normal after Covid-19, these survey findings may come as a shock. For those investing heavily in change: training staff, trialing digital solutions, rethinking their courses from the ground up, they may find reassurance in the optimism and confidence about long term technological change that permeates this data.

This article is published in association with Pearson. You can view the full findings of the Global Learner Survey here.

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