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What is the future for universities? FT readers respond

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Covid-19 has disrupted universities worldwide, with short-term impacts on study through the shift to remote learning and longer term implications for the provision and structure of higher education. In a recent online question and answer session, FT readers discussed the trends and pressures with leading experts and heads of institutions.

For students, an immediate concern was the quality of learning while studying remotely and the fairness of exams taken online. One argued: “How can online assessments, to the extent they contribute to students’ final grades for the year, be judged to involve sufficient rigour to merit comparison to the written exams under timed conditions of previous years?”

Another said the shift from a three-hour exam to an online version that can be completed at any time over a 10-day period offered a very different type of test: “My command of the subjects will certainly be far lower than if it was an exam; it de facto [is] a comprehension exercise from the lecture slides.”

As applicants reflected on prospects for the coming academic year and continued online study, Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, president of IE University in Madrid, argued the approach had advantages. “Our experience is that hybrid formats produce better results than just traditional classroom-based forms of teaching . . . The world, not just education, has already become virtual.”

Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, president of IE University in Madrid, pictured at the FT in London: ‘The world, not just education, has already become virtual’
Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, president of IE University in Madrid, pictured at the FT in London: ‘The world, not just education, has already become virtual’

He said the best education involved a combination of in-person and online study, stressing that it involved professors complementing classes with online chats, tutoring and the use of apps to help students. “Over 90 per cent of professors who try hybrid formats feel more satisfied and engaged, because they provide more opportunities to interact with students.”

Others were less convinced. One reader wrote: “Shifting learning to an online platform may streamline learning effectively, but it completely eradicates the social aspect of university and the independence students experience through being away from home.”

Online drawbacks

Another argued that more focus would be needed to prepare students and faculty for remote learning. “Colleges and universities need to pull together to help students learn the new skillset required for a more online world. We think that they are ‘digitally native’ but they are not.”

Lecturers also highlighted drawbacks of online. “The motivation works a lot better if you can pressure the student to look you in the eye and acknowledge that you are right in your disappointment in their performance.”

Another, with a background in technology, said: “Creating rich multimedia courses takes a very large amount of effort as well as skills that the lecturer will probably not have.”

A third wrote: “Students who were very supportive when we had to move online as an emergency measure in order to finish the semester, may not be supportive of a more long-term reorientation to [a] mostly online experience.”

Lynn Dobbs, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, agreed. “The majority of students want an in-person experience. They want an in-person academic experience but they also want the chance to make friends and socialise,” she said.

Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, added: “People should not be crammed into student accommodation against the latest health advice but, equally, once the long lockdown is over, young people will be itching to get away from home and to get on with their lives.”

Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says people ‘should not be crammed into student accommodation’ after the lockdown
Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says people ‘should not be crammed into student accommodation’ after the lockdown © Tom Pilston/HEPI

Yet Peter Mathieson, the vice-chancellor of Edinburgh university, offered a sobering assessment of any swift return to “normal” pre-pandemic academic life. While stressing there would be a return to campus, “We anticipate that social distancing will be a requirement for months if not years to come, so that packed libraries will be a thing of the past,” he said.

Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of Edinburgh university: ‘We anticipate that social distancing will be a requirement for months if not years to come’
Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of Edinburgh university: ‘We anticipate that social distancing will be a requirement for months if not years to come’ © K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post/Getty

For one reader, the “bottom line is that colleges need to figure out how to reopen campuses in the fall — students have been extremely accommodating this spring but will not tolerate high tuition bills for virtual education”.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham, wrote: “We will see more shorter courses, more life-long learning, more accelerated [undergraduate and postgraduate] degrees, more multiple starts around the year, more blended degrees. The international student market will never return to where it was in 2019.”

Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham: ‘The international student market will never return to where it was in 2019’
Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham: ‘The international student market will never return to where it was in 2019’ © Roberto Ricciuti/Getty

Others predicted evolutions in the sector and proposed new funding models. Referring to the cross-subsidy from the high fees of international students to cover overheads not now provided by government and charitable donors, one said: “If research was properly funded then universities wouldn’t have to find other profitmaking activities.”

Will overseas student numbers ever recover?

Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at Oxford, argued that international student numbers would grow again in the UK, while stressing rising competition from countries including Germany and in east Asia. “It is clear that China’s universities will come out of the pandemic stronger in comparative terms. They are beginning to return to normal business already, and they will not take a funding reduction.”

Within the UK, David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “We need to move beyond the dominance of the three-year undergraduate residential model in England which had become the ‘gold standard’ that young people were pushed into.”

He argues for more “modular” education with a combination of courses at different institutions over longer periods, which might “fit better with people’s lives and allow them to get the education and training they need for a better job or promotion without taking out huge debt.”

Many people highlighted the need for continued investment in education, notably during the post-coronavirus economic downturn. As one reader concluded: “Surely in the face of a foreseeable period of mass unemployment the government would be well advised to generously fund studies for school-leavers rather than leave them to the mercies of the job market.”

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