What have we learned and how will HE change post COVID-19?

Invited to step into a time machine and go back to before the coronavirus crisis by Matt Durnin, the British Council’s head of research and consultancy in East Asia, a distinguished line-up of global international higher education leaders outlined what they would have done differently to minimise the disruption caused from something as big as the pandemic.

Professor Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, would have been better prepared for online blended learning.

“We were already doing this, but we could have gone faster,” Rothwell told the online session at this year’s British Council Going Global conference on 23 June.

David Pilsbury, deputy vice-chancellor (international development) at Coventry University in the UK, said they should have put greater effort into partnerships with more academic staff on the ground. “Online is important, but it can only take you so far. This is a people business,” he said.

Dr Elizabeth Lee, chief executive officer of Sunway University in Malaysia, would have seen her institution’s academic staff better equipped to work and teach from home. “We had the infrastructure and bandwidth on campus, but not in our homes.”

Laurie Pearcey, pro vice-chancellor (international) at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said his country needed to review the “extremely narrow price range” charged by its universities.

“There’s not a lot of difference, but in the post COVID-19 world with fewer and poorer students we will need a pricing strategy that generates some diversity,” he said.

Professor Xi Youmin, executive president at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China, said COVID-19 speeded up the transformation processes already underway, but it was important to demonstrate the value added by online learning and he would focus more on innovation and developing entrepreneurial attitudes and breaking down barriers between different academic departments.

Surveys from East Asia

The session was billed as “International Education – The beginning of a new era, or not?” and follows surveys showing that at least 12% of the students from eight Asian markets who had been offered places at UK universities say they are definitely not coming to the UK.

The study looked at prospective international student intentions for studying in Britain this autumn in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, which together account for 52% of total international students in UK higher education.

Durnin said if the undecided respondents were added to those ‘very likely’ to defer or cancel, there could be a fall of 61% in international enrolments to the UK from these key markets. That would mean a £2.3 billion decline (US$2.85 billion) in direct student expenditure.

Going online is not enough

So, what does the international higher education sector need to do and is online blended learning enough to survive, Durnin asked the panellists?

The rush online was an inevitable ‘stop-gap’ measure during the height of the pandemic, with Dr Lee saying: “When COVID-19 hit China, which is much closer to us in Malaysia than it is to the UK, our students were concerned and worried and asked us if they could be taught online, which we did. But now it is the other way round and they ask when can they come back to school.”

Professor Rothwell said feedback from Manchester’s 40,000 students highlighted that they want a blended experience with some online learning, but also some face-to-face teaching and are looking for the “campus experience”.

Professor Xi said from a Chinese perspective – with the country’s own universities reporting a drop of 20% in incoming students from abroad – they know many students and parents are worried about the risk from COVID-19 and had withdrawn from offers in the West.

Two to three years’ recovery

He predicted two to three years of disruption to international student mobility until a vaccine is developed and confidence is restored in travelling abroad, but he was confident about long-term recovery.

“I am very positive because international cooperation and the globalised world needs international education. But universities need to reshape their learning and teaching and refine the future university after the pandemic because people will look at things in a different way and universities will need to change,” said Xi.

Other presenters agreed with the prediction of two to three years for the recovery of international higher education, with Lee saying there was still a desire for students to go from the East to West, but affordability would be a big question mark, with the United Nations warning that 500 million could be plunged into poverty as a result of the economic impact of the virus.

Flexibility and micro-credentialing

“Flexibility is going to be key,” she said, adding: “I totally agree with more blended learning and different modes, but people also need to offer face-to-face because that is what students want. They want to see and interact with their professors and fellow students.”

Lee sits on the Malaysia Qualifications Agency council and said they have been “extremely forward-looking” in pushing the idea of micro-credentialing to encourage universities from say Australia, Malaysia and China to collaborate and bundle together a new degree which students could study either online or by studying on campuses abroad, depending on the circumstances and whether there is a second wave of COVID-19.

“It would be more liberal, but we are trying to prepare people for jobs for the future and perhaps they should be a lot more liberal thinking and not so specialised,” said Lee.

Rothwell also predicted a move away from the standard three-, four- or five-year degree approach and more focus on executive and professional education for those who want to come back to study as they embark on different career paths later in life.

Pearcey said micro-credentials and micro-degrees offered “something snackable”, but suggested it didn’t need to lead to a degree.

Universities too conservative

Rothwell said: “Universities in the West and to a large extent Australia have been quite conservative about their model and they are going to have to be much more flexible and adaptable. We need a change in the way we do things and there is certainly much more scope for more partnerships.”

She said the most important word emerging from what universities have gone through with the coronavirus is “collaboration”, adding: “The higher education sector will still be in competition, but we will also be looking at doing things together, whether it is in research or education because we will need to be able to adapt to changing scenarios.”

Summing up the discussion, Lee said traditional universities had to offer something more than just online learning because institutions that had been doing this for years like the Open University were much better at doing this for students who just wanted that approach to learning.

And Pearcey said it was important to take account of the reaction of high school students from the Northern Hemisphere who had been forced to rely on online tuition after their physical classrooms were shut in the fight against the pandemic.

“Many have had a terrible experience and now they are thinking of where to go to university and they are thinking the last thing in the world we want is more of this online,” he warned.

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications. He blogs about higher education for the European universities public relations and communications association, EUPRIO and on his website, as well as providing English-language support for European universities and specialist higher education media.