As I’m sure we all have, I seem to have spent most of the last few weeks on Zoom, Teams, Skype, Hangouts and a variety of other video-conferencing tools. Indeed, just this week GuildHE has hosted five network meetings for staff within member institutions speaking to our quality managers, HR managers, librarians and policy and planners as well as our weekly Vice Chancellors call. During these discussions I have been struck by the range of scenarios that members are thinking about for the next academic year.

We’ve moved from the initial frenetic period of responding to the current crisis and now institutions are beginning to consider the short, medium and longer-term implications. Some are even thinking about what has changed for the better that we might want to take forward and where there are opportunities.
Whilst we are all hoping for the best, we are thinking through the various alternative scenarios of how we manage to deliver a high-quality student experience that may be quite different from what was advertised. There have previously been discussions about whether the start of the academic year might need to be delayed, or what happens if there is a second (or even third) wave of lockdown, but even if we do start in September, institutions are thinking through how this might happen.
Options that are being thought-through include whether we start the year entirely online, blended or on-campus but with social distancing. Indeed, many estates staff are currently wandering round campuses with their tape measures trying to work out how many staff and socially distanced students could fit into different rooms, or planning supermarket style one-way systems for narrow corridors.
Others are considering whether there might need to be different approaches for different years – with maybe first years on-campus with social distancing but other years studying online or only coming to campus at particular specified times. It is also worth considering that for some providers with multiple start-dates, or offering accelerated programmes, many of these issues are even more pressing.
One of the key challenges for many GuildHE institutions is the wide variety of professional and technical education that they offer. Many practical subjects are delivered with placements and work-based learning but also a range of subject disciplines that require artistic or performance space, highly specialist equipment, or hands-on experiences with humans and animals, all of which can be relatively difficult to replicate online in a meaningful way.
Informing students
This poses many questions to institutions, not least what they are able to tell current and prospective students about their academic experiences at the start of the academic year. As we wait to hear more guidance from the CMA there are clearly challenges about wanting to tell prospective students what their experience will be before the end of the current admissions cycle or Clearing, whilst at the same time recognising that the Government is currently working on three-week cycles. How understanding will students be if they are told that hopefully you have experience x, but alternatively you may receive experience y?
Student experience
Institutions have been busy supporting the mental health needs of staff and students during these past weeks. Indeed, we welcome the recent clarification from OfS that access money not being spent on face-to-face outreach in schools can be spent on a range of other activities supporting vulnerable students including mental health support. However, we still don’t know the longer-term implications of having been on lockdown for several months.

This raises questions of whether they will want to continue their studies, particularly international students, but also how we re-engage students, rebuild an academic community and consider questions around socialisation. This will raise many questions around transitions – from a disrupted school experience into first year, and from a disrupted first and second year into later years at university. There are also questions about the wider student experience that can be a key attraction of “going to Uni” and many students’ unions are currently considering how they deliver virtual or distanced Freshers Weeks.
Staff experience
The impact on students has been much discussed but the impact on staff will be equally important, many of whom may be returning from furlough. Socially distancing classrooms is one thing, but open-plan offices are quite another! Indeed, some institutions are thinking about morning or afternoon shifts for staff or allowing more working from home.
The staff in the higher education sector have reacted incredibly well to the current crisis and getting their teaching materials online and supporting students. But this level of change is not sustainable month after month and so how we support the mental health needs of staff will be essential to the longer-term resilience of the sector but also considering the discombobulating impact of completely turning your teaching style upside for some staff to supporting learning online.

Now that we are seeing the benefits of a more blended approach to learning are we going to simply return to old models of teaching? But if we are to get the most out of these blended approaches there will need to be significant investment in online resources and support for staff and students to get the most out of them.  

The higher education sector in five-years time is likely to look quite a lot different from the one pre-Covid. We should however consider what features of the higher education sector that we would like to retain but also consider what might have changed for the better, not least their increased engagement with their local communities. We look forward to engaging our members further in these discussions and contributing to the work of other organisations that are helping consider these issues. It will be the most flexible, innovative and agile institutions that are best able to respond to the opportunities and likely to weather the current financial challenges.