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We know the threats to higher education from COVID-19, but what about the opportunities?

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We know the threats to higher education from COVID-19, but what about the opportunities?

COVID-19 will likely shape the strategic context of universities for years to come. While the imminent challenges appear clear, what does it mean for the long term? And what strategic opportunities may be presented by the pandemic?

That was the topic of a recent discussion jointly hosted by Nous Group and the University Alliance, an association of British universities. The webinar, joined by vice-chancellors and senior university leaders as part of UA’s Annual Summit, was chaired by Simon Lancaster, the leader of Nous’ UK office. Joining Simon on the panel were experts including Professor Iain Martin (Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne’s Deakin University) and Sophie O’Connor (a Nous Principal).

Participants said they were optimistic, though the future shaped by COVID-19 remained uncertain. Many expressed determination that universities should not revert back to the previous status quo once societal and educational restrictions eased; instead, they said it was a unique opportunity for their institutions to transform themselves.

Participants identified several opportunities.

Now is the time for institutional agility

Opportunities include:

  • Cut red tape. Universities have been forced to trim processes in recent months. Let’s trust and empower staff to deliver without higher education institution’ traditional (and often unnecessary) slow bureaucracy.
  • Communicate with boards. Frequent, open and focused communication with boards delivers better governance and enables agility. Many universities report holding weekly or even daily meetings with governors to discuss the response to COVID-19. Day-long meetings with reams of briefing papers have not been possible. Let’s hold onto this shift after COVID-19 period.
  • Co-design. Genuine co-design will enable whole institutions – academics, professional services and students – to develop actions for lasting positive change. Everyone must buy in to the new strategies and approaches. We must ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

The future of higher education is virtual – and physical

Opportunities include:

  • Blended delivery. Both online and on-campus are going to be essential in the future. Universities must optimise both ’clicks’ and ’bricks’.
  • International market. The international market for online learning is vast and still underdeveloped. UK institutions have made huge leaps forward with online delivery in the past few months. This shows that our universities can grow, adapt and meet this demand.
  • Premium products. Certain online offerings could become universities’ premium products. Historically online has been the poor cousin of the on-campus experience. This need not be the case.
  • On-campus experience. The on-campus experience is much richer than just teaching and learning. Our campuses play a critical role: they are a melting pot for ideas and a space where people can grow, explore and develop. Online programme delivery is critical now and will be key going forward but university campuses remain essential and enriching for students and academics.

The challenge of COVID-19 has not affected universities’ purpose: education, knowledge transfer, idea generation and civic impact. But how universities achieve those goals is open for review. Higher education institutions need to consider new ways to deliver high-quality education and create a sense of place and civic impact in an increasingly digital environment.

Thank you to everyone involved in the webinar. It showed that while the challenges may be great, the opportunities also abound.

Get in touch to discuss how we can work with your university to shape the future.

Prepared with input from Antonia Instone.

Connect with Simon Lancaster and Sophie O'Connor on LinkedIn.

Published on 19 June 2020.