Post-COVID transformation not inevitable for universities

As COVID-19 upended business as usual across the world, higher education institutions have faced major challenges. Many universities have proven resilient, adapting quickly to continue educating students.

That disruption gives United Kingdom higher education institutions opportunities to reconsider strategic priorities, challenge entrenched orthodoxies and prepare for the future. But such change is not inevitable.

Fundamental assumptions challenged

The full social impact of COVID-19 will not be realised for years, but many assumptions about societies, institutions and individuals are already being challenged.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Globally, the West’s assumed dominance has been brought into question as the UK and United States have struggled to contain the virus while many countries in the Global South have been more effective.

Shutting borders in free-movement zones such as the European Union has been unprecedented but has met with little resistance.

Restrictions on civil liberties to fight the virus have been accepted in a way that would have been unimaginable before the pandemic.

In the UK, health workers, delivery personnel, shop assistants and transport workers have been elevated as essential workers, critical to society. The National Health Service has been given even greater prominence, exemplified by the weekly doorstep celebrations during the first lockdown.

And, within higher education, the March 2020 lockdown forcing students and staff to study and work from home has challenged assumptions about how teaching can be delivered and the ways staff can work remotely.

People in universities who have pushed for years for more flexible working and more digital teaching have taken part in an unpredicted pilot of this large-scale experiment, assuaging some concerns about its feasibility.

It is impossible to imagine this experience will not have lasting impacts.

The fundamentals of HE remain intact

It is easy to focus on what has changed, but the reality is that many fundamentals of higher education have not.

With news of a potential vaccine, it is conceivable that, by the 2021-22 academic year, universities could go back to normal, reverting to pre-COVID practices and jettisoning the innovations associated with the pandemic.

Some changes may outlive this period: staff may feel more comfortable requesting to work from home or more lectures may be recorded and accessible online. But it seems possible that fundamental university functions, the delivery of education or offers to students will not be transformed due to COVID-19 alone.

This is, in part, because universities have been largely resilient to the disruption caused. No doubt there have been many challenges, faux pas and mistakes, but no UK university has collapsed or been fundamentally restructured due to the pandemic in contrast to many businesses badly hit by the restrictions.

Student numbers did not collapse and universities have benefited from government spending, such as the furlough scheme. Despite concerns, all universities continued teaching in September 2020 and most admitted students on campus with some in-person teaching.

Claims that COVID-19 – on its own – will fundamentally transform our universities may, therefore, be overstated.

Seizing this moment for necessary change

The pandemic provides a window for people who understand the need to future-proof our universities to ensure they are resilient in the face of global challenges beyond COVID-19.

Consider some recent changes: new ways of working, more regular communications between university functions and greater collaboration with local authorities.

Universities, so often typecast as dense bureaucracies, have shown they can deal with rapid change. Staff and students are now more open to change, and this presents opportunities.

For universities to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world, big shifts in policy and institutional practices are essential. Rapid automation, climate change, structural inequalities, digital innovations, geopolitical and subnational political shifts all provide impetus for universities to reimagine their strategic direction.

The higher education sector will have to answer big questions in the coming years: What role can universities play in lifelong learning as automation replaces jobs at an unprecedented rate? How can universities help dismantle structural inequality within and outside their institution? How can universities harness AI and digital innovations to provide personalised experiences for students? How can universities position themselves to further fulfil their civic duties?

Some universities are making progress in answering these questions and there is good practice to draw on. But national policy incentives combined with bureaucratic structures resistant to change have denied universities a chance to significantly transform.

COVID-19 has been disruptive, but slipping back to business as usual is a likely scenario. Leaders must seize this opportunity to think more deeply about how universities can adapt to meet the challenges facing our world. Failing to do so could put the long-term future of our sector at risk.

Amatey Doku is a consultant at Nous Group, an international management consultancy operating in 10 locations across the UK, Australia and Canada.