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The future of Higher Education in the UK: COVID19 impact on institutes and students

Evelyn Levisohn

Apr 29, 2020

In an effort to extract and amplify the expansive wisdom of our Academic Advisory Board, we've been dialling in to their 'isolation stations' and asking these higher education oracles how they see the impact of COVID-19 playing out across the sector, and what advice they have for education leaders at this time.

Professor Cliff Allan was formerly Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham City University. He was a Board member of Universities UK and non-Executive Director of several regional and national bodies. Prior to BCU he held Deputy Vice-Chancellor positions at Sheffield Hallam and Teesside Universities respectively. Currently, Cliff pursues a range of advisory and consultancy interests in higher education in the UK and overseas.

Cliff Allan 1-1

Studiosity: Can you provide your view on how UK universities are responding in these unprecedented times?

Prof Cliff Allan: Like a lot of other organisations, universities have been responding responsibly and best as they can, in these extraordinary times. Certainly putting the safety and the health of their staff and students first. Universities have moved well and moved quickly, to ensure that teaching and learning can still go ahead, online.

It has been quite unprecedented and extraordinary, just how quickly universities have been able to shift from their traditional face-to-face model to an exclusively online model, essentially within a week. Universities are often characterised as supertankers: slow to turn and change in direction. They've been like speedboats, the last few weeks.

"Universities are often characterised as supertankers: slow to turn and change in direction. They've been like speedboats, the last few weeks."

Of course we can expect some variability in quality, given the time available to do that. It is inevitable that we're not seeing courses being completely redesigned so they can be delivered online. To use that well-known phrase, people have been "building the plane while flying it"

But I think under the circumstances, staff in universities are doing an incredible job in a very, very fast and rapidly changing time.

Studiosity: Will this crisis result in a change to the way universities teach in 2020, or are we likely to see some changes that endure beyond the time of the pandemic? And if so, what changes do you think they might be?

Cliff: There's no question that the experience of students in this academic year is going to be different. Here in the UK, students are just completing their winter term and entering into their final summer term, or their second semester. For some, those students that may not have great access to online facilities, it's going to be particularly worrying - those students who may be harder to reach now they're no longer present. I know some universities are putting in a lot of effort in targeting those students that may be more at risk. And I think that's where most of the kind of concentration probably needs to happen. We'll certainly see a broad range of experiences.

"Hopefully staff will be able to work together with students as partners, to figure out the best way of managing this very uncertain and very different end to the academic year."

Hopefully staff will be able to listen to students, and work together as partners, to figure out the best way of managing this very uncertain and very different end to the academic year. Not least, novel approaches to assessment and examination, because many students will need and want to demonstrate their acquired knowledge.

Looking to the future, how can we turn this crisis into an opportunity for change? I hope that we don't fall back into what we were doing before. 

What can we learn from this fast step-change around teaching and learning that many leaders have wanted to make in universities, but historically haven't been able to? Many people may now be waking up to the opportunities, flexibility, and the different models that might emerge from an online offer.

For example, how might we unbundle the student experience? So that academic staff don't feel they have to do everything. How can we segment different providers doing different parts of the student support system? To what extent can we actually get a better balance of face-to-face with online provision? How might we bundle up content in different ways rather than just the traditional forms of lecturing tutorial that we've had? That's what people are currently doing.


So we want to take that forward in a meaningful way, to change parts of the model that we've become a little bit stuck with. It will be down to people's ingenuity and people's acceptance that this is providing advantages to the higher educational model. Some people in the U.K. now have started to call for the introduction of a 'digital learning fund' to make sure that what we're learning now about online delivery is sustained as we move forward, which I think is a fantastic idea to keep the momentum of change.

What it could have an impact on is the temporal experience of higher education. Does everything have to be delivered in the traditional academic year? We may feel that this gives us a new model of teaching: any place, anywhere, anytime. In many ways, this is a shock to the system, and sometimes shocks to the system can result in quite rapid change. Many people are using this phrase "the new normal". So does this become the normal, as we move forward?

"We may feel that this gives us a new model of teaching: any place, anywhere, anytime."

Studiosity: For the last several years, UK policy makers have been heavily focused on the student experience and putting students first. How do you think the sector has responded to that?

Cliff: Well, 'students first' is still a kind of a contested area, at least in terms of media coverage of what universities do. In fact, generally there's a relatively negative impression about the extent to which universities are 'putting students first'. But when I look back over the last fifteen, twenty years, I've seen a significant shift in the way universities now focus on the student experience, learning experience, focus on student success, greater attention given to student retention, and the extent to which employability outcomes now are really a major feature of courses. The wider support and welfare of students is given significant attention, if not the top priority attention by many universities.

Yes, UK policymakers have placed a lot of attention on this. This goes back to the late 1990s where we saw an emphasis in funding methodology, on the importance of teaching and learning strategies. The UK established an infrastructure of support through bodies like the Higher Education Academy, JISC, Subject Centres, National Teaching Fellows. They all helped in putting together their support infrastructure to enable subject groups and universities to respond to the policy interventions.

Initiatives such as the National Student Survey and the focus on student engagement has all led here as well. And now we have a regulator whose primary focus is students. So I think in the UK as a whole we now have a very responsive sector to students' interests, student needs.

"I think in the UK as a whole, we now have a very responsive sector to students' interests, student needs."

Education, teaching and learning is often articulated as the primary purpose and goal of universities. The extent to which the current crisis is impacting on the student learning experience depends really on how different institutions learn from this. And the extent to which they can evaluate the experiences of their students on how they are learning online: what is their experience, what is the quality of material that is actually being delivered?

In many ways this crisis is a big test on the adaptability of universities, to use this experience to do things in a different way for the benefit of students. It will also show us the extent to which students themselves value an online experience, how they see the benefits of this balance between online and face-to-face, and what they can bring to their own learning.

Studiosity: Lastly, are there any resources or tools available that you would recommend for universities in the UK, Australia or elsewhere looking to adapt their delivery online?

Cliff: In the U.K. we have Advance Higher Education and Jisc, who have put a lot of support up on their websites: information, tools, case studies, examples for effective online learning. And also the Higher Education Chronicle in the US, they have some fantastic tools on their website called 'Going online in a hurry', which is basically what to do and how to do it. 'Moving Online Now' is another good collection of resources. These are great ways to help the rapid innovation that is now taking place in our institutions. I would recommend to colleagues to draw on some of these tools that are out there - you don't have to reinvent it yourselves. There's a lot of great knowledge and good practice guides that exist already.

Chronicle of HE Coronavirus articles collection


To read more about Cliff and our Academic Advisory Board, see their profiles here


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