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To say we’re living in challenging times seems something of an understatement. We’re not just still living in the midst of a pandemic, but how this extrapolates into our health & wellbeing, and on a macro level with the threat to economic growth and the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit that is still very much unknown. We’ve all been affected in some way and it’s proving to be quite the juggling act.

I’ve seen a huge impact on the education sector. After months of home schooling parents and students at all levels - GCSE, A level, colleges or University - are all facing the significant impact of the turbulent times we live in. So much has been forced to change. Primary and secondary school aged children have returned to school days without assemblies, operating within school year “bubbles” and the compulsory wearing of face coverings in communal areas. As soon as the A Level results fiasco emerged, universities endured the busiest clearing process they’d ever experienced. And now those students are about to embark on a very different student life than their predecessors.

Let’s focus for a moment on universities. When I look back at my own experience at City University, it’s a million miles away from where we are now. I had a fantastic time learning to make my student grant (then loan) last, mixing with people from all walks of life including a vast cohort of overseas students, expressing and debating different viewpoints, making new friends that have since become friends for life, playing in sports clubs to keep fit and healthy, and being inspired by peers and lecturers who introduced new ideas and viewpoints. We genuinely grew as individuals bursting with enthusiasm and desire, ready to make our mark on the world. This was of course all within the context of a safe and healthy environment.

As students up and down the country head back to university campuses for the first time in 6 months, the experience is already proving to be a very different one this year. Freshers week activities and parties have been conducted virtually. Students, like everyone else, are having to face a future (at least for the short term) where their courses are delivered predominantly online, socialising for some is limited to the “rule of 6” and even worse, thousands of students have already been locked down in their halls with 40 universities reporting COVID outbreaks. The threat of more severe restrictions is constantly lurking in the shadows with concerns that students may not be able to come home for Christmas …it will no doubt make for a very different introduction to university life.

The changing face of higher education

Universities are facing a huge challenge in terms of the experience they offer students: How do they attract students and offer a community involving collaboration and teamwork that enables them to thrive both academically and socially within the backdrop of the pandemic? And the big question, as asked in The Times recently: Is it still worth getting a degree?

Statistics show university graduates are more likely to become employed after their degree and they also earn more over the long term than their non-university counterparts… but that was until the world was turned upside down. Will that still be the case post-COVID? There are so many contributing factors that may muddy the waters.

Day to day learning has shifted, with students currently facing a blended learning experience as courses are delivered via a mix of online and face to face teaching. This isn’t the university experience most of them signed up for. We already have formal distance learning institutions - The Open University is the largest in the UK and has been around for more than 50 years, and while it attracts around 200,000 students per year, this is just a fraction of the 2.4 million students in higher education overall. The distance learning aspect of this “new normal” is so far removed from what students signed up for that there are even claims that students may be entitled to tuition fee refunds.

How international students will be affected by the restrictions on travel is also a big issue. Will those already studying be able to return? And what about the new cohort - and the fees they bring with them? UK universities rely on their international student fees, and any decline in these fees will hit them harder than other countries around the world. Desperate times have called for desperate measures with some even chartering airlines to bring their international students back this year.

Is the whole framework of higher education under threat?

With so much change, the question is: will it ever go back? Universities need to be able to convince students that higher education is still the right choice, that despite the fact their experience will be different in the short term, it will still be worth it in the long run.

Underpinning the conditions the new normal forces us to operate within is technology - not just technology for technology’s sake but to solve real problems. The way the world has changed has created problems for students as they question the decisions they’re making: am I going to have the same quality of experience as those in previous years? If the majority of my courses are being delivered online, why am I still paying the same in uni fees?

Technology can help solve these real problems for students - and for universities. The fact is that without the connectivity that technology brings, the measures to be able to continue learning and collaborating simply aren’t possible. To offer students what they perceive as a value for money experience they need access to a network that is capable of running a secure and rich remote learning experience, with the right tools to deliver interactive online courses that genuinely deliver the best outcome for students. Agility is more important than ever, offering the ability to flex up and down when required, as is the tracking the success of these environments and the wellbeing and satisfaction of the students and teachers involved. And this all needs to be delivered within a secure environment.

The time has come for universities to review their strategy around technology. Do they have the right infrastructure in place? Is there anything missing? Do they have the right medium and long term strategy to continue to be an attractive proposition for students from the UK and indeed from abroad?

Watch this space for news of our upcoming roundtable event later in the year where experts working in this sector will discuss how some of these challenges can be resolved to minimise the disruption to education establishments and their students...

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