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What will the UK University landscape look like when we return to ‘normal’​?

Many people are speculating that one of the impacts of the COVID pandemic won’t so much be changing what the future of Higher Education looks like, but rather an acceleration to an already predetermined model.

I have always felt that the educational space which is most ripe for disruption has been the HE space, and most specifically, Universities. Although a lot is being written around schools – and there is no doubt that there will be a monumental shift in the school systems – government involvement and the pastoral requirements of K-12 schooling makes me believe this will be a slower transition when we get back to ‘normal’. Given the regional governmental involvement in universities and the obvious recent impacts of Brexit and fee structure changes over the past 10 years, it is a certainty that the University landscape will not revert to norm once class is back in session.

It remains unclear whether Universities will be able to, or allowed to, re-open again this academic year, with a January start a real possibility.

Some questions we all need address as educators include:

  • Will we see a significant transition to MOOCs replacing Universities?
  • Will we see ‘disruptor’ Universities replacing Oxbridge & Russell Groups in the next 10 years?
  • Which elements of traditional HE degrees are most likely to be reinvented or replaced?
  • Will lower ranking Universities pivot to be more vocational, or be pushed out of the ecosystem altogether?
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Despite the impending arrival of Brexit, UCAS undergraduate applications actually went up in 2020. Although EU applications understandably dropped, the influx from China (a 30% increase in 2019 Y-on-Y) propped up the overall numbers seeing an overall increase in 2019. The question is, in a post COVID world, will we see a significant drop in overseas applications? US Universities are bolstered by millions of students joining from China, India and surrounding countries and their entire financial models may now be under threat. If Universities are facing an impending gap in their revenue, what will this mean to their educational models, or indeed the courses they offer? In 2019, Over half a million undergraduate applications were for Medicine and related degrees, and “Business & Admin Studies.” Whilst the former is unlikely to change significantly, what will happen to business studies?

  • Will expensive mid-ranging Universities be replaced by more affordable MOOCs; or
  • Will this open up a space for disruptor Universities who may be more adept at keeping pace with a rapidly evolving educational (and EdTech) landscape

Coursera now offers many University degrees online at a fraction of the cost of traditional degrees, and with our new stay-at-home culture, it won’t be surprising to see an increasing number moving towards MOOCs seeing them as a legitimate alternative to traditional University degrees. BUT MOOCs haven’t yet addressed some of the softer touch elements you pay for with a University degree – the network you develop, the real-world skills, budgeting, pastoral support, public speaking, mentorship etc. Although the quality of online delivery will have come ahead in leaps and bounds these past months, I feel the threat of MOOCs replacing Universities is still a while away, if a real threat at all in their current model of delivery.

With that said, Universities clearly need to keep pace with a changing landscape. This excellent piece in the Harvard Business Review cleanly addresses the need for Universities to take a more blended approach to learning, keeping a very close eye on the data they will be able to capture during this unprecedented period of learning and innovation.

When you pay for a University degree, what are you paying for?

The question all current, and incumbent Uni students will be asking themselves is: When you pay for a University degree, what are you paying for? The knowledge you acquire? The skills? The network? Or the piece of paper at the end? Different stakeholders (read: parents) will take varying stances on this.

Will this be the end of lectures?

As a University student, I never enjoyed lectures and I often felt they were an unfortunate hangover of a previous teaching structure. I still feel that way now, but as an educator, I’ve also come to realise the massive disconnect between being an academic, and being a dynamic teacher, which are not the same thing. Some of the best minds in research and academia are poor presenters, terrible orators, and have no inherent interest in standing in front of a class trying to teach a concept in that format. Setting aside the human capital argument of paying staff to stand in front of massive auditoriums of students, the physical investment in massive lecture halls is expensive real estate, and costly to maintain. If engagement is one of the major factors of a good teacher, is sitting in a room with 150 tired hungover undergrads really the best way to deliver meaningful content?

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The potential problem with dividing the role of academics and ‘teachers’ in a University setting is also the economics of it. What price do you pay for a brilliant researcher? What price do you pay an unbelievable presenter of information, but who has no peer reviewed papers, or even at one extreme, no interest in the subject matter their teaching? Looking at the longevity of careers in the HE space, we must ask the question of whether Uni academics are underpaid? If we look at the Singaporean strategy of central government salaries matching or exceeding the private sector, should we be finding a way to match this to get the very best people in front of the classroom, delivering the online content which students will watch which will almost certainly erase lectures in the near future, leaving the brilliant academic minds to focus on research, as well as taking on the more pastoral, mentorship aspect of the teacher-student relationship?

This piece by Professor Galway, an (opinionated!) lecturer at NYU addresses a few important questions, and one of them is the fact that there is a strange demand for academics who are excellent researchers and thinkers, to also be fantastic presenters and engaging public speakers. Will we see this change?

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What about the fees students will pay, will they change if Universities to adapt to blended learning? Will the tightening purse strings on households mean fewer families will be willing to commit to the current fee structure? Having been a lucky (EU!) recipient of a £1,000/annum Oxford University education, it is remarkable to think that the equivalent fee we would be paying now would be up to 12x that, or potentially more from next year. Still, there are strong arguments that the tutorial system, collegiate environment for networking and more, justify this fee in the longer term.

These data points can inform future decisions about when — and why — some classes should be taught remotely, which ones should remain on the campus, and which within-campus classes should be supplemented or complemented by technology.

Tony Blair famously wanted 50% of young people to go to University. The problem with this isn’t so much access to good education which can only be a good thing, but the very concept of what a University is, and what it will become. Should students go to University for the love of learning, or should the main metric we use for the success of Universities be the employability rate at the end of the degree? If the latter, what is the future of virtually any degree not preparing students for STEM or more specifically, coding? If Universities are suddenly having to balance the books without the influx of overseas students joining, will employability be the metric they flaunt for the degree courses they try and fill up.

Alongside traditional Russell Group Unis, ‘disruptor’ universities like New College of Humanities & London Interdisciplinary School are becoming legitimate options for students. I have long felt that the restricted UK university degree system (English or Physics? Chemistry or Law?) is outdated, and needs a shake up. Kings College London are making a transition to a more modular teaching approach, more akin go the US delivery of information, which nicely blends learning for the sake of learning, with solving real world problems. The US may be on the other extreme of the pedagogical scale, but it is clear that a balance needs to be struck in the UK, and these diruptor universities are doing just that.

But even these institutions are still very clearly Universities. If we look on the other end of the scale at somewhere like the Dyson Institute, we find an educational institution which is very clearly teaching content and skills which are purely vocational, and leads to careers in an industry which is sure to expand, and have a good guarantee of employment in 5-10-15 years. Better yet, it is paid!

If you are a parent now, making an important decision on your child’s HE wants and needs, do you invest in a tried and tested model but which you know won’t probably won’t exist in its current format in10 years, or take a gamble on a new route with unknown benefits, and a raft of known drawbacks?

Although a near impossible task, if you were to break down the fees you were paying into their constituent parts – lectures, classes, tutorials, labs, networking, exams, extra-curriculars etc, how would you best like to see the % split? Where would you like more investment in the current system, and where is the best ROI as an investor in the university product?

Will Universities go down more of a regional franchised model?

The other approach we may see Universities take in light of the changing landscape is a more regional approach. Much in the same way Dulwich College have opened so many schools in China, NYU set up a campus in Abu Dhabi, or Lancaster opening a campus in Leipzig, there is a growing trend of ‘business-first’ Universities diversifying their offerings by branching into new regions. If students become more accepting of an online learning space for a large proportion of there course, will there be a need for the franchised University model going forward?

The reality seems to be that many Universities are unlikely to ever open their doors again when this is all done, and those that do have an almighty challenge ahead to properly blend traditional degree delivery with new technologies and platforms to better engage and better equip students for a rapidly changing working world. Those universities which can adapt fastest, employ brilliant people who are engaging teachers, both in person and online, may stand to gain the most, and it is certain that the more data they collect during this period the better for reinventing their model of delivery. That, and the UK government may have to play catch up both in terms of its fee structure and access to HE.

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