This is a highly anxious time for universities. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates the education sector will be worst hit by coronavirus, while universities have approached the government for a bailout to plug a project £2.5 bn hole in their finances. Despite this, universities are demonstrating their importance to the UK, both internationally through Covid-19 research, as well as support for their local communities.
But while the focus has justifiably been on finances, there is another equally pressing challenge for universities: how to deliver an excellent experience for all their students when everything has been turned upside down.
While lockdown remains in place, and with social distancing likely until a vaccine is found, the immediate future of universities is online. Could this be a solution that protects both students’ learning and universities’ income?
This is more challenging than it sounds. Face-to-face work is especially important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And they may find it harder to study in environments that are not conducive to learning.
Remote learning must not allow these groups of students to become ever more remote. A 2017 study showed that students from disadvantaged backgrounds “consistently perform worse in an online setting than they do in face-to-face classrooms”. The study added that taking online courses increases their likelihood of dropping out and stalls their progress.
When I was universities minister, I wanted universities to develop the widening participation agenda to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, are able to progress successfully at university, getting the grades they deserve and the jobs they want at the end. It is vital in the shift to remote learning that this goal is not lost.
That’s why universities need to track student progress remotely, just as institutions like Nottingham Trent or Northampton have done already on campus. We cannot afford for the care-leaver who is unable to leave their care setting, the estranged pupil, and those from vulnerable and deprived backgrounds to miss out on their potential. Many will not have a laptop or tablet: strategies need to be swiftly developed to ensure that we do not face a lost generation of talent unable to access the graduate market.
Equally, there are myriad issues surrounding data protection. The importance of using the right platforms, which cannot be misused or abused, to avoid potentially creating new forms of online harassment must be considered. While we may have all been discovering Zoom in recent weeks, this doesn’t mean that it should become the default option. Clear expectations should be set for universities through the universities’ watchdog, the Office for Students.
We can’t afford hundreds of different approaches across universities that are disparate in quality and difficult to judge in value. There is much good work, and decades of experience among the university staff who have dedicated their lives to establishing the correct forms of online learning. The Education Endowment Foundation has produced research on effective teaching and learning strategies, while Educate at UCL has been academically evaluating educational technology.
On my tours of around 60 universities, I saw some superb examples of integrated online learning, perhaps none more so than the Open University. With their online OpenSTEM laboratories, they have enabled even the most complex scientific experiments to happen remotely, 24 hours a day, with students hundreds of miles away. We now need universities to collaborate with the institutions that are leading the way, and learn from the excellence that already exists.
While this ambitious agenda can be achieved, we should recognise that it will be hard work. There will be greater calls on lecturers’ and tutors’ time. Online learning will need additional resources, not fewer. That’s why calls to reduce fees are misguided, especially if we still want universities to exist in the future across all parts of the country to help level up our most disadvantaged communities. I have no doubt that universities will be able to adapt to our new pandemic world and to continue to offer students an unrivalled experience.