What are the Wonkhe community’s hopes for the HE sector post Covid-19?

This year's Wonkhe community survey asked about hopes for change coming from Covid-19. Debbie McVitty unpacks the responses for national policy.

In this year’s Wonkhe community survey we asked an open question: “What longer-term change to policies or systems do you hope to see in UK higher education as a result of Covid-19?”

Though respondents to the survey came from across UK higher education, including governors, heads of institution, academics and professional staff, those working in students’ unions and students themselves, nearly half identified as being in middle management roles.

As such we don’t view the survey as being in any way “representative” of the views of people working in higher education as a whole – so we’ve focused on capturing and reporting the themes that garnered multiple responses, without indicating proportions or raw numbers.

Just under 600 respondents took a view on this question. Here’s what they said.

Value universities’ contribution to building back

Many hoped to see a greater public confidence in and respect for scientific expertise as a result of the pandemic, coupled with a more vocal acknowledgement from the government of universities’ contribution to public health and wellbeing. As one contributor put it, “The pandemic has shown how resourceful and productive universities are not just in terms of science. I really hope this message can be communicated.”

Another respondent hoped for a shift in public assessment of the value of graduates: “A stronger national argument for the value of HE which doesn’t just focus on career prospects, and at the same time being able to clearly articulate how graduates contribute to a thriving country – particularly in light of Covid.”

Some hoped that Covid-19 would strengthen civic links with local communities, with one pragmatic respondent noting, “It’s going to be a rough couple of years, and good community engagement may help with some of the likely difficulties.”

Esteem for specific disciplines was also a recurring theme, though not surprisingly there was no consensus on which disciplines should enjoy increased esteem: some felt that the role of STEM would be (further) enhanced by Covid; others hoped to see what they felt would amount to a rebalancing of esteem between STEM and everything else.

Flexibility is the future

Notwithstanding Herculean efforts to transition to online teaching and remote working inside universities, at the national level Covid-19 has demonstrated the inflexibility that is baked into the UK higher education system. The vast majority of students start their courses in September/October, and there is a regulatory and funding distinction between online and on-campus provision that now looks outdated.

Though the specific challenges of Covid-19 combined with the recent A level grades debacle could hardly have been predicted, a more flexible system could perhaps have adapted more easily to those constraints. One respondent suggested that universities might pivot to a model of “accessibility by default – flexible learning that fits around students’ needs.”

There was strong support among respondents for more flexible provision, or as one respondent characterised it, “a step-on, step-off approach”. Many respondents anticipated a more blended and combined online/on-campus offer in the future, shorter courses to support lifelong learning, a resurgence of a modular approach in the university curriculum, and students more able to start their study at different points in the year.

Several respondents noted that a system of credit transfer to support student mobility between universities would be a necessary component of a more flexible system. There were also calls for improved financial support for part-time study.

The likelihood of increased provision of options at levels four and five following the Augar review came up as well, with opinion divided over whether these sorts of courses were most properly offered by universities or colleges. One respondent suggested that rather than “blurring the boundaries”, each could specialise further: “More HE in FE (non research based) rather than HE becoming even more active in sub degree level work…The other side of that should be universities partnering with FE colleges and offering articulation from sub degree to final year(s) of degrees so that there is a clear path for capable students to work through the system at a speed that works for them.”

Another respondent hoped that Covid would lead to changes to pedagogy: “Perhaps I’m optimistic, but maybe Covid will finally wean HE off the ‘lecture’ as the base unit of teaching and direct teachers’ time towards far more worthwhile and engaging methods of teaching and learning.”

Strong and stable

With more than a touch of wistfulness – and much more of outright scepticism – many hoped for greater stability in funding for higher education in the coming years. It’s never a surprise when universities want stable funding, but the shock to the system of the potential loss of international income – still a real threat in many institutions – and the knock-on impacts on, especially, the research base, should make policymakers take notice.

It’s reasonable, given the government’s ambitions for research, that some respondents would like to see the issue of full economic costing coming up for discussion, and better support for research-industry partnership.

Universities’ over-reliance on students from single countries was also a theme, with some suggesting that the government could help diversify the recruitment pool and opportunities for transnational education. One respondent felt that in the wake of Covid-19 the sector should be more consultative and engaged internationally, while some felt that pulling back from international markets would be a better option – or at least that overseas income should not be relied on to underpin university research and teaching of UK students.

One respondent summed up their hope for “recognition that international shouldn’t be the cash cow on which the sector depends; make international opportunities genuine and enriching, and re-balance the HE finance model so as not to over-rely on the money from international fees.”

Some respondents expressed a desire for improved financial support for students, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds. One respondent suggested that students should receive additional financial assistance to stay at home.

A more inclusive sector

The theme of collaboration and cooperation came up again and again, suggesting that many have either benefitted from sharing resources and ideas with colleagues across or the sector during Covid, or struggled with a lack of infrastructure for doing so.

As one respondent put it: “More collaboration and project working across institutions, especially virtually, and especially in order to share expertise. There is more of a sense of ‘we’re in this together’ at the moment, and I hope that instills a cultural change that will impact policies and systems for the better.”

Less travel to events in the future was widely expressed, with many hoping that the current offering of more accessible online content would continue, enabling people from all over the country to engage without having to travel to (mostly) London.

There was frequent mention of equality, diversity, and inclusion, and mental health and wellbeing. Covid-19 has impacted unevenly on different groups across higher education – for example, some respondents hoped that accessibility of teaching for disabled students would be both easier and a higher priority as a result of Covid-19. Others mentioned the digital divide, and the struggle for some students to access technology. Precarious career structures also featured, with early career academics in many institutions having borne the brunt of cost-saving in the wake of Covid-19.

Rather than singling out specific groups in need of attention, one respondent summed up: ““I think getting back to the roots of education being something everyone can participate in will hopefully occur.”

University admissions

Recent events on A level results were clearly on the mind of some respondents, who hoped to see reform to the admissions system. The use of predicted grades, bias in the system, the “scramble” and short time scales of Clearing, and the range of options available to students came up in responses.

A few called for some form of post qualification admission: “Post-award recruitment would be a game changer if that is possible” and others for greater control for universities: “in an ideal world universities will be given the autonomy to make admissions decisions to increase the choice for students.”

Will anything change?

Lots of respondents caveated their hopes with an expression of disbelief that anything would, in fact, change. One respondent said: “things are so uncertain just now and I feel very pessimistic about the current political climate producing anything positive.” Another said, “The government might value our efforts, especially with regard to research and preparing our students for a digital future. But, I’m not optimistic that the government is listening – they are still in bash the universities mode.”

Some of that could be Covid-response-fuelled exhaustion, and general scepticism about the government’s handling of the pandemic. But this mood of pessimism is worth worrying about, all the same.

Put it this way: it’s actually important for national wellbeing that the people who work in and sustain universities feel some level of optimism about the future. That shared belief that there’s a better way of doing things – whether that’s improving pedagogy, developing new research techniques, or enhanced support for accessing education – is what keeps universities making the impact they do.

It’s hard, just now, to find the positive conversations to have, and concrete plans to make. But what I take from the response to this bit of the community survey is that the Wonkhe community continues to articulate an agenda for positive policy change, even when people don’t much feel like it.

One response to “What are the Wonkhe community’s hopes for the HE sector post Covid-19?

  1. Some of the flexible provision suggestions sound similar to what I thought university would be like before I commenced my studies. I arrived with very little knowledge of what would actually be involved, and my apparent presumption was something like this: A broad syllabus for the degree course I was enrolled on would be issued; an exhaustive list of lectures and their locations would be made available; and it would be up to me to look through that list, consider what self-directed learning should also engage with, and decide how to approach my degree in a way that would be interesting, whilst enabling me to cover the syllabus. Of, course, it wasn’t at all like that, but it now strikes me that this approach might lend itself to a ‘step on, step off’ method, with degree credit earned per piece of submitted work and the majority of assessment being comprised of such a portfolio of essays, critical analyses and literature reviews. This might be completely pie in the sky and would rely on widespread access to recorded lectures to deliver the taught content, but maybe it is interesting to other readers.

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