For most, the three or four years spent at university are the best years of their life so far, and rightfully so. Independence, a chance to live with friends for prolonged periods of time and following your dreams are all encompassing of that experience. As a 2018 graduate and ex Sabbatical Officer at Loughborough Students’ Union, I have had that life changing experience very recently. This has made me think, what will change for the students studying at this time and how will this shape Higher Education in the future?
The possibility of students not being allowed to physically attend university in September is a reality that seems more and more inevitable. With universities such as Cambridge already stating that all teaching will be remote until Summer of 2021, will this discourage those from attending this year? Students deferring their places for a year is a potential option as many may not want to miss their freshers’ events, as well as the remainder of their first term and beyond. These are important factors that determine the next 3-4 years of their student experience. Gone are the days where institutions used only the quality of teaching or research to attract young talent; now, the university experience is another metric used in securing the coveted league table positions which are all so desired in a heavily contested market.
On the other side of the argument, Jane Hunt, MP for Loughborough recently brought up a question for the Prime Minister asking ‘When universities can start bringing back their students?’ A good question that many different institutions have had different opinions on already. Bolton, for example, want to bring back students but with vigorous social distancing policies. What is the ‘right’ decision and how will this impact students? If students do come back in September, how restricted will students be and can they really experience what university life is about if socialising is restricted? I asked Salomé Doré, Loughborough Students’ Union President for her thoughts on students’ returning in September. “All I know is that things are going to be different. Even when students can go back on campus, they might have to stay in the same flat and interact with only a certain group of other students, the student experience is going to change, and even when things go back to ‘normal’, it will be different.”
A worry for a lot of students is always the future. Speaking with Harry Bower, Oxford Brookes Student Union President, he stated “One of the most noticeable responses being witnessed across the sector is students fearing a significant devaluation of their degrees. The loss of practical sessions, trips and examinations are being seen by many students as risking their ability to compete in a testing job market, compared to graduates of previous years. This substantially risks damaging the professional perceptions of degrees awarded by institutions who are normally judged by their stable ranking positions but are now at risk of being judged against poor Covid-19 delivery.”
What positives can come out of this pandemic for the UK Higher Education sector? Enhancement of digital learning is one that should emerge and should encourage institutes not to rely solely on physical presence in lectures and exams to engage students. Can this be the future for universities in attracting international students? Having courses/modules that are 100% remote learning could increase student numbers and therefore, increase the tuition fees obtained by the organisation that otherwise struggle in line with the rest of the economy and filling places ensures financial stability and longevity for many universities. Students that struggle with mental health might find it beneficial to have the opportunity to continue to learn in the comfort and safety of their own home. Can all areas of university then follow suit and increase their digital presence? Having virtual meetings with Career Services and personal tutors for example might increase the percentage of students utilising these services.
Having recent fond memories from a campus-based University – I for one, hope that campus life returns to normal as quickly as possible for future students. It shaped me and many others into the professionals we are today. Hopefully, this will mean universities will continue to grow and adapt to the digital age we are in to deliver world class educations. Personally, I am excited to see how the sector recovers post Covid-19.
Rory Pears is an Associate at The McLean Partnership. For more information or a confidential discussion on how we can help, please contact Rory on 020 3597 6406 or email@example.com