COVID-19 crisis will change HE forever, IHEF hears

COVID-19 will change how universities operate, teach and do research, Professor Sir Steve Smith told Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum 2020 or IHEF, which moved online last week. He warned that international recruitment could be hit significantly and international provision would have to diversify.

The forum, for which University World News is a media partner, brought together sector leaders from around the world, via digital platforms, to focus on the huge challenges of managing the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

From sitting rooms and hastily arranged locations in several countries and different time zones, hundreds of delegates tuned in to hear Professor Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Exeter and chair of the International Policy Network at Universities UK, open the webinar-type event by saying: “This crisis feels like no other. I honestly think it will change us, and how we operate, teach and do research forever.”

He praised the incredible efforts by university staff, many of whom had rapidly innovated and moved courses online as the coronavirus closed campuses, as well as those helping international students stranded by the closure of borders and the suspension of international flights.

Speaking by video-link, Smith said his university at Exeter, like many others, was “preparing parts of our campuses to support overflowing hospitals; our labs are adapting to perform COVID-19 tests and all our teaching is moving online”.

Recalling that just a few weeks ago, UK higher education was worrying about the disruption to Chinese students planning to come to the UK, and seeing COVID-19 as an international issue, Smith said: “Now it is clear it will affect every aspect of our life and every aspect of university life.”

Recovery phase

Despite the current difficulties, he urged his audience of leading figures from the international higher education world to think about the recovery phase when the current COVID-19 crisis comes to a conclusion.

“We will need a massive and coordinated effort to ensure that when normality returns, we can recover quickly.

“This will be important for universities, but not just for universities. To put it bluntly, your country needs you. You can be part of getting the UK back on its feet and play a vital role in helping our towns and cities recover.

“Together with our outstanding research community which is already contributing much to the fight against coronavirus, universities will be essential to broader national prosperity,” he told his web-based audience.

“And through your networks around the world we may have a significant contribution to make to the recovery of other countries.”

Transnational education

“Transnational education is already a success, but I predict it will become more important as universities think about diversifying the way they reach international students. It could well be that the number of students able to travel to us to study is hit significantly by the financial hardships which will inevitably follow the progress of this disease,” said Smith.

He predicted that within a very short time, professionals within higher education and elsewhere “will become so used to working remotely, via online platforms, that in some cases we will never go back to our old habits of gathering in stuffy rooms with bad coffee and biscuits we shouldn’t be eating”.

Just think of all that time we will get back that we would have spent on planes and trains, he suggested, adding: “Those carbon zero targets may not look so quite so impossible.”

Before COVID-19 appeared, Smith said the International Higher Education Forum was preparing to focus on Britain’s new strategy to attract more students from overseas and celebrate postgraduate work visa changes, the launch of the Global Talent Visa and the recovery of interest in studying in the UK from Indian students.

He urged all involved to double down on this strategy when the recovery begins and not to lose the ambition when the crisis is over and also not to forget about Brexit and the need to continue pushing “for association with Horizon Europe and for some link with Erasmus+”.

Valuing research

He emphasised that the UK government “has said in the clearest possible terms that it not only values research, but that it sees it and student and staff mobility as central to the future health of the UK economy and society. I think we are pushing at an open door when we call for an international knowledge-based economy and society.”

Smith particularly welcomed “the very speedy reversal of nine years of previous intransigence over post-study work visas” and the government’s very significant commitments to increase the percentage of gross domestic product spent on R&D in the recent budget.

He concluded by highlighting that the response to the coronavirus had shown that “experts and expertise matters and it is genuinely heartening to see the way in which science has led so much of our policy-making”.

Further sessions of the IHEF 2020 will take place on line on 20 April, 22 April and 24 April, as detailed here.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.