In this blog, Whitecap Director, and Education specialist Lal Tawney, considers the challenges currently facing the sector, as well as potential responses organisations could develop.

Universities in the UK and across the world have been profoundly affected by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Back in March, Universities were one of the first movers in response to the pandemic. Acutely aware that the set-up of student life is a hotbed for the spread of a transmittable disease, most sent their students home before the Easter holidays.

But Universities didn’t realise then quite how far-reaching the impact of coronavirus would be for institutions like themselves. They are currently facing significant losses – up to £2.5 billion next year – while the structure of teaching and learning is likely to undergo a complete overhaul, possibly for good.

Although a full-scale bailout by the government has been refused, the Secretary of State for Education announced a package of measures to stabilise university admissions this autumn and to help the universities and students are safeguarded at a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

But despite these setbacks, Universities have the opportunity to make strategic changes now that will set them up to be more sustainable and more successful for a distinctly different looking future. This blog looks at the setbacks Universities are facing, and considers what they could or should address in their response.

Three setbacks universities are facing:

1. The inevitable move to online or a hybrid model will be expensive/require investment

This will force a move to remote learning that has been on the cards for a while. 200-person lecture halls with back-to-back 9am to 5pm lectures during which students transition in and out of buildings on an hourly basis will no longer be feasible. Manchester and Cambridge have already said that all lectures will be online with small group teaching and tutorials continuing face to face, and others including Warwick, Oxford, Queen’s and Exeter have indicated a similar hybrid approach.

But it’s not just a case of simply transferring lectures to live streaming. The pedagogical approach for online requires investment and expertise.

The issue of lab tutorials and science demonstrations, which professors say can’t be done online, needs to be tackled with innovative thinking and initiatives never tried before.

Universities will need to assess which courses should be prioritised, and quickly. Every 5 to 6 online courses are thought to cost Universities £10 million. There will also be cost implications of purchasing multi-user licences for each student to log on individually. From a cyber security perspective, universities will be responsible for the online safety of the thousands more students logging in to online platforms.

2. There will be an anticipated drop in student intake numbers for 2020

Students facing an academic year of online learning are more like to want to defer, while those on one-year masters courses may drop out altogether. Potential students have been deliberating about whether it’s worth going to university in September 2020. All eyes will be on the UCAS responses to undergraduate offers – the date which was delayed by two weeks to 18th June to allow potential students more time.

The government announced a temporary cap on student numbers in England for 2020/21 (option to bid for additional places in strategically important and health care subjects). The cap is intended to ensure stability in the admissions system and allow providers an additional 5% growth above their forecast base growth.

Many UK universities take a large proportion of students from overseas, who will no longer be able to study here or will be discouraged due to uncertainty around travel restrictions. A study by IDP outlined that most international students still want to study abroad, but there is a strong preference for in-person instruction rather than online methods of content delivery.

So, there are a number of unknowns, but a drop in the number of international students will have a huge financial impact.

Nevertheless, the loss of student income will force universities to re-consider their spend, and it could be that in future, universities put more focus on recruiting students from home rather than from abroad.

3. The reputation of the Higher Education sector will be at risk

Traditionally, the value of Universities has rarely been questioned. A good degree holds serious weight and, despite ever-increasing costs to attend, high numbers of 18-22 year olds still felt it was worth it. Students are worried about contact with tutors and the quality of education.

Early calls for reduced fees for online courses (there have been suggestions that a 50% move to online should match a 25% reduction in fees), have in the last few weeks been refused by the government, who have stated that the quality of teaching means that fees should stay the same.

Whether smaller group tuition continues in person or not, Universities are battling with media headlines and assumptions that degrees from 2020 onwards will be largely conducted online. This is seen to be a reduction in value, and, despite government assurances to the contrary, worth less cash. The proportion of undergraduate students reporting that their course is good or very good value for money had already dropped to 39% from 41% last year, a trend expected to continue as courses move online. Furthermore, the improved chance of graduate post-recruitment is also harming universities and their perceived worth. There is little about the immediate future that is certain, but what we do know already is that employers are already planning to cut graduate vacancies by 12%, understandably forcing prospective students to scrutinise the purpose of a University degree.

Three considerations for University leaders:

1. Vice Chancellors must consider how they use the coronavirus pandemic to accelerate the development of their future operating model

The move to online could force a series of institutional shifts and re-structuring that have long been in the pipeline and not only prepare, but bolster Universities for an increasingly altered future. The Guardian quote Prof Sir Tim O’Shea, the former vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University, who says that only 20 Universities in the UK are thought to be in a position to provide a range of quality online courses in time for September 2020. If that infrastructure is not already in-built, or cost accounted for, it is too late to set that up across an entire university. Amongst Universities, there are those considered to be able and willing (to transition to online) those who are willing but not able, and those who are able but not willing. For Universities with the impetus for change, commitment to a long hard summer preparing a new operating model will, in the future, prove an opportunity and a platform for resilience and innovation.

2. How universities deal with the change will have lasting impact on reputation

Durham University announced that all teaching would go online from September 2020, before retracting the statement after a student backlash and sudden increase in drop out and deferral rates. The UK is competing against other countries for international students – destinations that are seen to have a stronger public health response, and that are able to move more quickly to open borders and campuses, will likely earn greater market share by attracting students who had originally intended to study elsewhere. Right now, the UK is probably seen as a safer study destination than the US so this may be beneficial to the UK in the short term.

3. In the upcoming recession, skilled based and vocational courses will become more prominent

Universities will be mindful of changes in the external learning environment – the growing importance of skilled-oriented learning and the rise of online learning platforms, the increase in alternatives such as apprenticeships and microcredentias, and different learning opportunities such as peer-to-peer learning such as U People.

How universities respond now, will prepare them for a future in which they have the opportunity to be more sustainable and successful:

The feeling is that for higher education, this could be the start of a new beginning. Some UK universities were already on the financial back foot before the beginning of this crisis, and now they have the opportunity to make operational and financial changes that optimise their performance and serve them for years to come.

In order to get to that stage, universities need to work through some serious questions:

  • What is current student sentiment, and can universities respond accordingly?
  • How do you make changes to learning formats while maintaining continuity?
  • What does our future proposition look like?
  • What are the major pitfalls to transitioning to online learning?
  • How can they be avoided? How should the move to online be phased?
  • How should we diversify our offer to manage risk? Can plans be made so that long term, the university is less reliant on students from abroad and can sustain itself with a proportionally higher local intake?
  • What will this mean for campus; the systems and the workforce of the future?

Moving to online, adopting a more localised approach to student recruitment, and spending on digital infrastructure are all changes that have been fast-tracked by the arrival of Covid-19, but are by no means new on the agenda. Universities were already under financial pressure before the global pandemic. The changes to Universities ways of working, accelerated by the pandemic, are ones that will no doubt benefit these institutions when life returns to normal – whatever ‘normal’ might be.

If you’d like to discuss this blog post or share your own perspective on the issues covered, please get in touch or comment via our social media channels on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Established in 2012, Whitecap Consulting is a regional strategy consultancy headquartered in Leeds, with offices in Manchester, Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Bristol and Newcastle. We typically work with boards, executives and investors of predominantly mid-sized organisations with a turnover of c£10m-£300m, helping clients analyse, develop and implement growth strategies. Also, we work with clients across a range of sectors including Financial Services, Technology, FinTech, Outsourcing, Consumer and Retail, Property, Healthcare, Higher Education, Manufacturing and Professional Services, including Corporate Finance and PE.