The full social impact of COVID-19 will not be realised for years but many assumptions about societies, institutions and individuals are already being challenged.
Globally, the West’s assumed dominance has been brought into question, as the UK and US have struggled to contain the virus while many countries in the Global South have been more effective. Shutting borders in free-movement zones such as the European Union has been unprecedented but met with little resistance. Restrictions on civil liberties to fight the virus have been accepted in a way that would have been unimaginable before the pandemic.
In the UK, health workers, delivery personnel, shop assistants and transport workers have been elevated as key workers, critical to society. The National Health Service has been given even greater prominence, exemplified by the weekly doorstep celebrations during the first lockdown.
Within UK higher education, business as usual was upended suddenly in March 2020. Students were sent home and teaching and assessments forced online. University leaders overnight were forced to lead a workforce that was almost entirely remote. Whilst the majority of students returned to campus in the autumn, a hybrid of face-to-face and online teaching pushed universities in unknown territory. Much of this would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic. People in universities who have pushed for years for more flexible working and more digital teaching have had an unpredicted pilot of this large-scale experiment, assuaging some concerns about its feasibility. It is impossible to imagine this experience will not have lasting impacts.
The fundamentals of higher education are intact
It is easy to focus on what has changed, but the reality is many fundamentals of higher education have remained intact.
As vaccine rollouts begin in earnest, it is conceivable that by the 2021/22 academic year universities could go back to normal, reverting to pre-COVID-19 practices and jettisoning innovations associated with the pandemic. Some changes may naturally outlive this period: staff may feel more comfortable requesting to work from home or more lectures will be recorded online. But it seems possible that fundamental university functions, the delivery of education, or offers to students will not be transformed due to COVID-19 alone.
But it seems possible that fundamental university functions, the delivery of education, or offers to students will not be transformed due to COVID-19 alone.
This is in part because universities have been largely resilient to the disruption caused. No doubt there have been many challenges, faux pas and mistakes, but no UK university has collapsed
or been fundamentally restructured due to the pandemic, in contrast to many businesses badly hit by restrictions. Student numbers did not collapse and universities have benefited from government spending, such as the furlough scheme. Despite concerns, all universities continued teaching in September 2020 and most admitted students on campus with some in-person teaching.
Claims that COVID-19 – on its own – will fundamentally transform our universities may be overstated.
Universities can seize this moment for necessary change
The pandemic provides a window for people who understand the need to futureproof our universities to ensure they are resilient in the face of global challenges beyond COVID-19.
Consider some recent changes: new ways of working, more regular communications between university functions and greater collaboration with local authorities and partners. Universities, so often typecast as dense bureaucracies, have shown they can deal with rapid change. Staff and students are now more open to change, and this presents opportunities.
For universities to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world, big shifts in policy and institutional practices are essential. Rapid automation
, climate change, structural inequalities, digital innovations, geopolitical and subnational political shifts all provide impetus for universities to reimagine their strategic direction.
The higher education sector will have to answer big questions in coming years: What role can universities play in lifelong learning as automation replaces jobs at an unprecedent rate? How can universities help dismantle structural inequality within and outside their institutions? How can universities harness AI and digital innovations to provide personalised experiences for students? How can universities position themselves to further fulfil their civic duties?
The reality is that universities will have to look very different if they are to meet these global challenges. They need to deepen international relationships, embrace digital and AI in core processes and in teaching and learning, work more effectively with their local communities through an enhanced civic agenda, provide more flexible learning pathways for a wider pool of learners and position themselves as key to solving global grand challenges such as climate change and structural inequality.
Some universities are making progress in answering these questions and there is good practice to draw on. But national policy incentives combined with bureaucratic structures resistant to change have denied universities a chance to significantly transform.
COVID-19 has been disruptive but slipping back to business as usual is a likely scenario. Leaders must seize this opportunity to think more deeply about how universities can adapt to meet the challenges facing our world. Failing to do so could put the long-term future of our sector at risk.
COVID-19 has been disruptive but slipping back to business as usual is a likely scenario.
Practical next steps to embed change
Time is of the essence. As the vaccine roll out begins the promise of defeating the virus, combined with an optimism of rejection of the COVID-19 period could easily lead to a lapse to old ways of working. Society as a whole may start to reject the endless MS Teams calls and working from home as a hangover from COVID-19, and positive innovations throughout this period may be caught up in this broader yearning for a return to “normality”. Universities need to work quickly to short-circuit this: Institutions must commit resource early to take stock of the impacts of COVID-19, decide the changes that are beneficial to embed, before testing, rolling out and embedding reforms across the organisation. Entrepreneurial and engaged universities are well placed to do this.
- Take stock of COVID-19 impacts on the institution. The leadership should consult widely throughout the institution through a structured exercise to understand, at every level what has changed, both positive and negative as a result of working through COVID-19. Over this time many universities have sped up decision making, deepened relationships across the sector and with local authorities, improved cross-functional working and streamlined internal communications. Surfacing many of these improvements will signal throughout the organisation that lessons are being learnt and start to create the momentum for change.
- Decide the changes that are beneficial to embed. Working with staff and students, prioritise key changes which will be strategically useful for the institution to adopt in the long term. Universities would do well to focus on the changes which encourage universities to be more agile, speed up decision making, encourage problem solving and innovation to set the university well to tackle global challenges. These conversations should be held within the context of well-researched analysis of future national and global trends which the university will have to prepare for.
- Test, roll out and embed across the organisation. Even though new practices and ways of working may be fixed already, in order to ensure that they are fully embedded in the long term, institutions must treat them as new innovations; They should be overtly tested and piloted (and evaluated) before being rolled out and embedded throughout the relevant parts of the organisation. To create necessary buy-in, ensure that the changes were highlighted in initial consultation process and that staff and students have opportunities to feed into the testing and evaluation of these new initiatives.
Retaining COVID-19 innovations in a post-pandemic world may create unforeseen dissonances which will be challenging to overcome, and none of the current changes should be taken as given. To ensure that the positive innovations from COVID-19 remain in the long term, institutions must do the necessary work required to create buy-in and embed these changes. Doing so will set themselves up well for the future and ensure that they are well placed to respond to emerging pressures and future challenges.