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Don’t underestimate the resilience of our universities

Higher Education Policy Insight

01 May 2020

This article was first published on Higher Education Policy Insight

This is by no means the first time that British universities have faced predictions of existential doom, still less huge uncertainties about their future markets and finances. The modern public university system was born in the double-whammy aftermath of the 1914-18 World War and the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic. The sector has since weathered, and indeed prospered, through a century of economic, social and technological upheavals.

Over the past 15 years, we have been surveying the views and expectations of UK vice-chancellors on changes in higher education. Almost every one of our surveys has been undertaken against a background of apparently fundamental threats to the future of universities. These include the shift to fee-based funding, the abolition of student number controls, the encouragement of competition from new providers, sharp declines in the numbers of school-leavers and adult learners, the threat from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other alternative study modes, and most recently the move to adversarial consumerist regulation. Each of these changes has generated speculation about the demise of universities as we have known them and the ‘inevitable’ closure of some.

And yet, despite the recurrent narrative of gloom, the responses of most vice-chancellors to each wave of allegedly existential threats have remained remarkably sanguine. Asked for their forecasts of the outlook for their institutions and for the wider university sector, the majority of predictions from each survey have been for continued growth, continuity and stability. And, although life for most universities has undoubtedly grown progressively tougher over the past decade or so, they have largely been proved right, as student numbers and revenues have grown steadily. The entrenched conservatism of both universities and their students, while often frustrating to policymakers seeking to modernise a system they perceive as old-fashioned, has had the side effect of fostering remarkable resilience to passing disruptions and policy shifts.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for expecting the post-Covid tsunami of shocks to the higher education system to be among the worst yet. It seems clear that, for a few years at least, university leaders must plan for a smaller, poorer and more precarious national sector. There will be – indeed there already is – excess capacity across the system; loss-making courses, campuses and activities have been cut by many institutions, even before the coming falls in international students and business revenues. None will be able to grow their way out of the crisis on the back of buoyant demand from Chinese students, as many have done in recent years. Demand from potential home students and from employers will probably go down before it recovers. Universities’ ability to cross subsidise loss-making research and widening participation programmes from profitable international fees and traded services, already shrinking fast, could become a thing of the past. And all of this at a time when universities’ political capital, and the inclination of Westminster to prioritise the sector’s pleas for special treatment, was, at least until a few weeks ago, at an all-time low.

No one is predicting that all this means an end to higher education. National and global needs for advanced education, research and knowledge exchange will be greater than ever to support the years of rebuilding and reconstruction that will follow the pandemic. No one knows what the ‘new normaI’ for the post-Covid economy and for higher education within it will look like. But most universities have already accepted that it will be very different from the past. In just the few weeks since the Covid crisis struck, our universities have demonstrated a hitherto unknown ability to reinvent their ways of working at unprecedented scale and speed.

Universities have shown themselves able to introduce fundamental reforms that would normally have taken years in a matter of weeks and even days, with some two million students being moved almost overnight to online teaching and assessments with generally positive feedback on the quality of the new experience. There has been an almost wartime spirit of cooperation between institutions and public and private sector partners. University labs and equipment have been turned over to Covid testing, treatments and potential remedies; vacant campus accommodation has been made available to front-line workers; and students and staff have joined the informal army of voluntary support services. Much of this cooperation has given real substance to universities’ civic engagement with their local communities, businesses and services (especially in healthcare) – something that was often quite limited in the recent past.

These highly laudable measures have of course been taken in the context of the unprecedented national state of emergency, and to meet immediate urgent needs. But they demonstrate latent capabilities for agility, cooperation and rapid innovation that will be vital as permanent features if our universities are to succeed in whatever the post-covid ‘new normal’ has in store. The maxim, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’, has particular resonance for universities at this time. While the transition may be painful for some, the sector could well emerge more agile, more innovative and stronger than before.

Paul Woodgates is head of Higher Education at PA Consulting, and Mike Boxall is Special Adviser to PA Consulting

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