Rachel Gowers

When the lockdown started in March, no one knew how long it would last. Schools, Colleges and Universities all reacted quickly, modifying everything from our systems of examinations to methods of teaching in just a few short weeks.

Now we are faced with the prospect of this new reality, or at least a version of it, continuing long into 2021 and we have to plan accordingly.

Flexibility is key

As we have seen, the COVID-19 pandemic is not something that can easily be bookended. There have been waves of change and there could easily be additional spikes in cases further down the line. On the one hand we could be able to open as normal come September, and on the other hand we could need to move the curriculum to be entirely virtual for the whole academic year and beyond.

Many universities are starting to declare their plans ahead of the UCAS decision deadline on 18th June. Cambridge University has revealed they are moving all lectures online until summer of 2021 and the University of Bolton has said they will still open the campus but introduce new measures like temperature scanners and compulsory face masks.

There is a lot of pressure to confirm these plans before the deadline, but it is also important to remain flexible. At this stage, no one knows what September will look like and our main priority is to do the best for our students both in terms of their health and long-term education.

It’s important to prepare for multiple different outcomes to allow for different options. If we commit to being fully virtual and then restrictions lift, we don’t want to be in the position where we aren’t prepared for students to return to campus.

The key is to be open with our students as the situation progresses and allow for different models of learning as we go.

A blended approach

At this stage, this flexibility lends itself best to a blended learning approach. In this model, we can move some tutorials online to be accessed from home and then book technical space to practice their skills at times to suit them.

This method could involve front loading the theoretical parts of courses digitally for the first part of the year and structuring the latter semesters in blocks of ‘practical bootcamps’ so smaller groups can come in and learn in the classrooms and studios.

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In the case of Freshers week, or Welcome week as we call it, induction lectures could be delivered online, and then we could arrange alternate days for students to come in and meet each other in their subjects.

Coming together is a huge part of university life and we want to do our best to offer that to our students – when and where it is safe to do so.

Preparing the future workforce

COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on businesses across the world and employability will be more of a consideration when approaching a university degree than ever before.

The fact that technology has been so essential, both in fighting the pandemic and helping people and institutions stay connected, has been a stark reminder of how important technological ability is and why we all need to have better digital skills. It has also shown us the importance of industry and university collaboration. All you have to do is look at the symptom-trackers and 3D-printed ventilators which have been produced. This collaboration is vital for the future of education and we cannot lose sight of this going forward.

Even before the crisis started, we were facing a fourth industrial revolution. McKinsey published a report stating that 45% of all current tasks could be automated with technology and the World Economic Forum thinks that 33% of jobs in 2023 don’t exist yet. 

This means technological degrees will be increasingly desirable and even those degrees that aren’t considered technology-focussed will need to think about how they are preparing students for life after university.

Challenges and opportunities

As a sector, we have been presented with huge challenges but also considerable opportunities.

Some have said that there will be a considerable drop in admissions next year as a result of the pandemic. But it is often in the face of a recession and when jobs are unstable, that people look to education even more. This is an opportunity for us as a sector to take a step back, embrace the new technologies that are available and help our students learn the digital skills they need to enter a changing workforce.

Universities are often accused of being stuck in their ways, traditional and slow to change but in the face of this crisis, universities have already shown incredible agility and innovative thinking to enable students to continue to learn. We need to keep up this agility and flexibility with our planning next year and make sure we are in constant dialogue with our students to get the best possible outcome.

Despite the hardships, this time has shown us that we can change and we can do brilliant things if we work together. I just hope that once this crisis passes, we don’t lose sight of the challenges and opportunities we have been presented with. One thing is for certain: we cannot afford to return to ‘business as usual’.

Rachel Gowers is the Director of Staffordshire University London 

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