As autonomous institutions, universities are writing their own roadmaps to overcome the pandemic. Not only do they generate more than £95 billion per annum for the UK economy and nearly 1 million full time jobs, they are crucial in the provision of skilled knowledge workers across all industries enhancing the productivity of businesses. Of particular importance in the current climate, universities are essential for developing the workforce for government funded services like schools and the NHS.
Following the lockdown of institutions across the UK, more than 2 million students completed the remainder of summer term lectures online using video-conferencing applications including Webex, Zoom and Microsoft Teams to minimise the impact caused by Covid-19 on universities ability to deliver these benefits.
Despite mandatory campus closures, the role that universities are playing in the fight against Covid-19 is remarkable. Efforts span from developing and distributing life saving equipment like ventilators to research into the development of a vaccine as well as thousands of medical student volunteers working on the frontline.
For higher education to maintain its ability to drive economic recovery, universities must look to invest in ways to increase access to courses online and use digital platforms to teach. Plans to run courses in a dual way - both online and in person - are set to commence from September maximise capacity.
Of the current $2.2 trillion global higher education market, the online segment comprises less than 2%. Perhaps this is evidence of how online education has typically been viewed by universities in the past as a threat to traditional instruction.
Now though, faced with an unfamiliar urgency, the higher education sector is relying on digital solutions to deliver high-quality teaching online. Collaborative tools and virtual software will facilitate the support for students who won’t have access to face-to-face lectures.
UK institutions are still processing international applications, worth approximately £6.9 billion to the sector a year, as normal and the intended Autumn 2020 intake will be running as planned according to Studyin-UK.com.
Either through personal choice guided by safety concerns or by international travel regulation and governance, many of these prospective international students hoping to study at UK institutions from 2020 will participate remotely. Online education platform Coursera has already seen enrolments increase by nearly 650% in May alone - putting the pressure on universities to maintain the quality of education via digital solutions.
In anticipation of the challenges that higher education institutions face as they transition more to digital ways of working, university CIO’s should have begun to implement an agile IT strategy so that the digital services provided across various platforms will stand up to an unprecedented increase in demand.
There are several major differences between the mass shift from on-site to remote working experienced by UK firms in March and the increase in the provision of and enrolment on online university courses for the upcoming year. Primarily though, it won’t be the responsibility of higher education institutions to ensure students’ home working environments are fit for purpose. Instead, the onus will be directed at the quality of delivery of these courses that are consumed remotely and their efficacy will be judged on experience.
What’s more is that the ‘modern student’ is invariably born on or after the millennium and as such is naturally more attuned and more capable in digital technology. ‘Generation Z’ are the embodiment of digital transformation - having integrated technology as part of their lives in every possible instance - implying the presence and basic functioning of technology as an entry level standard for digital services and not a differentiating factor.
Instead, human experience - how people feel about their interactions with digital services - will determine the level of engagement and success of education provided online. Being digitally native for all of their lives, the modern student has exceedingly high expectations as to the quality and speed of the delivery of the digital services they consume.
For students seeking to continue their UK degree remotely, or in fact those overseas beginning a remote course in the autumn of 2020 (with the latter group potentially representing one fifth of the UK’s total student population), engaging with a digital education platform where quality is such that perhaps video is lost, or audio is intermittent would be beyond frustrating - it would be detrimental to their overall education and effectively undermine the delivery of instruction online. Factor into this equation the yearly cost of education at UK institutions and the need for consistently high quality experiences of these platforms is essential for maintaining a level of capacity that enables universities to deliver the benefits stated above.
Discussions to facilitate the restart of higher education for the coming autumn are giving educators the chance to identify long-term investment opportunities - in a sector where online education has largely been on the periphery in terms of investment in the student experience.
In the short run, UK universities adjusted to provide academic continuity as various collaborative services facilitated emergency remote teaching. Now, despite the emergency appearing to subside, normality remains a distant concept so there is a good chance that digital solutions for learning will be part of higher education for the foreseeable future.
We can expect to see a greater use of digital technology to maintain social distancing measures on-site and training on educational technology could become woven into the syllabus for both staff and students. But where there are setbacks there are also opportunities for long term improvement. Investment in development of online programs has the potential to unearth a new population of students - recovering and diversifying tuition fee revenue.
Moreover, the primary product of university is the transfer of knowledge. By increasing the use of remote work for university staff and lecturers and providing them with seamless digital services, it will be possible to draw in talent that was previously geographically unavailable for face-to-face instruction, deepening the prestige of UK higher education.