Opportunities and barriers to the reimagined university

The worldwide pandemic has cast a bright light on the inefficiencies in higher education and has created an environment that champions flexibility and innovation.

The following are some of the opportunities created by COVID-19:

Vision planning will supplement strategic planning

A vision plan is a statement of intent and is fundamentally different from a mission statement, which is a description of the route to follow to realise the vision. Vision plans require thinking from the end.

In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek urges companies and organisations to create a “differentiating value proposition”. He asks the questions: “What do you do, why do you do it and what do you do that no one else can do?”

Similar questions can be asked of colleges and universities. Why should an applicant enrol in your school? What do you do better than any other school? What will your school ‘look like’ after COVID-19 recedes into the background? What is the vision of the collegiate experience for your future students? How is that vision different from what it is today? These are vision questions.

Creating vision plans is fundamentally different from creating strategic plans. And, presumably, different people would be tasked with creating a vision for the future that, once created, will be articulated to all major constituencies.

It’s long(er) term thinking. It’s thinking with no box. It’s a plan with a vision.

What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Year-long academic programmes will combine the best of in-person and online learning

In an April 2020 survey report published by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 58% of the 262 college and university respondents were considering or had decided to remain fully online for the autumn 2020 semester and 62% were considering decreasing, or had decreased, the number of in-person courses for the autumn semester.

COVID-19 may accelerate the end of the traditional semester-based system for collegiate registration, progression and graduation.

What would your school ‘look like’ if a system was created allowing students, in concert with academic deans, advisors and registrars, to create and personalise their educational experience, course sequencing and progression?

What would your school ‘look like’ if a personalised, year-long academic programme contributed to reduced attrition and transfer rates? What could be the financial return on this investment?

Would this be disruptive? Complicated? Labour-intensive? Difficult to monitor? All that is true.

However, to return to the semester-by-semester course structure is to deny one of the lasting implications of COVID-19: change. The virus has put its imprint on all facets of collegiate life, including the traditional way students accumulate the number of credits needed to graduate.

What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Create year-long recruitment programmes for both domestic and international students

What would your school ‘look like’ if your recruitment and admission policies and procedures were changed to reflect the realities of the post-pandemic world? Would your recruitment teams continue to travel domestically and internationally to attract students to your school? Would you continue to pay agents to recruit for you worldwide? It’s unlikely that the answers to these questions would be in the affirmative.

If the academic year is restructured, the recruitment year must also change.

What would your school ‘look like’ if your recruitment and admission staff relied more heavily on virtual recruitment and admission tools? What if that system included an effective and efficient method of communicating with applicants and their families that did not require participating in college fairs?

What if admission deans reviewed credentials and made admission decisions as soon as the application file was complete? Why should students wait for a specific, designated date some time in the future to learn if they have been accepted or denied admission? If there is no longer a semester-by-semester intake of students, there is no need to evaluate credentials and notify applicants along the traditional timeline.

What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Create new business models and financing options

Most higher education business models, dependent on annual tuition increases, and, for some, increased government assistance, are another victim of COVID-19. Most current business plans are based on margins that have been getting slimmer and slimmer every year.

The virus has shed a bright light on the inherent weaknesses of many current higher education business models, especially in colleges and universities with less-than-robust online course strategies and endowment portfolios.

Mat Frenz, a partner at Entangled Group, an education consulting firm, put it best: “Institutions will be forced to reconsider their business model and make very difficult decisions about who they are and what they do.”

If the academic year is changed and students are enrolled in both in-person and online courses, should tuition charges be different for each method of instruction? And if year-long instruction improved progression and graduation rates, what could be the return on the investment?

What cost-cutting measures could be introduced at your school to reduce costs? How much was your school spending on travel to attend conferences and to recruit students and what could be the cost savings if travel was reduced?

What would your school ‘look like’ if spending priorities shifted to reflect the virus’ impact?

What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Replace competition with collaboration

It is impossible to estimate how many tuition-driven, endowment-poor colleges and universities will be forced to suspend operations or merge due to continued declining enrolments and revenue.

Who on the vision team could be tasked with compiling a short list of colleges and universities that would be a good ‘fit’ for merging with your school? What criteria would you use to determine potential partners? Would combining majors be part of your criteria? Would team-teaching online courses be part of your school’s criteria? Could negotiations include offering dual degrees? What are the benefits and liabilities?

What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Maybe none of these suggestions are relevant to your college or university. Perhaps some are. But I hope I have made the case for:

• Creating a vision for what your school will ‘look like’ after the dangers of COVID -19 are resolved.

• The necessity to consider and create new academic, financial and admission models.

• Re-entering a post-COVID-19 world not in isolation but in collaboration.

Obstacles to creating a reimagined university

One thing about systems, especially systems as old as American higher education, is that people grow unconscious of them. The system gets internalised. It becomes a mindset. It is just the way things are and it can be hard to recover the reasons why it is the way things are.” – Louis Menand, English professor, Harvard University

Many of you would probably agree that my suggestions are iconoclastic, unachievable and impractical. Perhaps none of the recommendations would work at your school or you don’t have the time or staff to consider initiating radical change.

Change is hard to imagine and even harder to implement. But the virus and this time in the history of higher education demand that college administrators re-examine how they do their jobs and how they can reimagine the work they do.

As an enrolment manager and dean of admission, when I tried to initiate change, I heard the following:

• It won’t work here. You don’t understand this school.

• We have always done it this way.

• I don’t have the time.

• I’m afraid of failing and getting fired.

• This isn’t my job.

• It feels too uncomfortable.

Entrenched administrative silos make it impossible in some schools to ‘think without a box’ and reimagine another way of working.

Pushbacks are inevitable. That is why the approval of the president or vice-chancellor and the creativity of the chief innovation officer and vision committee are essential to the success of the reimagined university.

This is a time to rehearse a new way of thinking. The dark alchemy of the pandemic’s disruption and unpredictability demands a new way of thinking and planning; a new way of dealing effectively with the new realities of the world in which we live.

No one size fits all

We are living in a world where norms are constantly unravelling around the edges, including norms for higher education and college and university administration. That is why this is the beginning of a discussion. The reimagined university is a never-ending proposition, with new initiatives building one upon another.

Dates of destiny are always on time.

This outline for the reimagined university was not meant to suggest a one-size-fits-all approach. Each college and university must decide how it wishes to proceed after the confusion and chaos of the pandemic ceases to be a driving factor in our work and personal lives.

Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world. This is part three of a three-part series. Part one examined the case for reimagining the university and part two looked at what needs to change and the different roles required in the reimagined university.