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The impact will be dependent on what you do now

There has been so much written about the impact of COVID-19 on the university sector, much of it focusing on a reductive view of a post-pandemic world. The narrative is focused on domestic students not returning, international students staying away and black holes in university finances.

Photo: Josh Sorenson/Pexels

"To just focus on the negative misses the opportunities that the current crisis could present"

I have no doubt that all of these predictions will materialise across all institutions to a greater or lesser degree.

The impact will be dependent on what you do now.   

UUK and the sector more broadly have been lobbying government to ensure that these difficulties are acknowledged and that some sort of short-term arrangements are put in place to support the integrity of the HE system.

I have worked in the sector for almost 20 years and one might think that this is just the latest in a series of perfect storms that have buffeted universities in their long history.  But this storm is different and is wreaking havoc on all of our assumptions and preconceptions – from student behaviour to the economic outlook, the world we are preparing our students for and the research we do.

There will be winners and losers but to just focus on the negative misses the opportunities that the current crisis could present and limits university responses to the crisis, creating an even greater challenge from which many may not survive.

“The risk of paralysis through endless analysis and a lack of decision making will exacerbate the situation”

With so much uncertainty, the risk of paralysis through endless analysis and a lack of decision making will exacerbate the situation.  Universities now need to act on three fronts to keep moving forward and prepare for a range of eventualities which we can start to visualise.

Front 1 – Resilience and crisis management.

In March and early April, the focus was rightly on resilience and crisis management – moving students and staff to remote working, securing buildings and everything that entailed. One of the biggest shifts has been the mass move to online.  This has happened at pace and the platform market is one of only a few sectors continuing to enjoy growth.

Most of the university leaders I have spoken to in the last few weeks have been delighted and somewhat surprised at the speed at which they have been able to move operations off campus and online and how they have supported staff and students in the transition. They also recognise that many of the solutions are fine for now but will not be sustainable in the longer term.

Just like the shift from chalkboard to smartboard, the move from lecture theatre to Zoom has been equally underwhelming and not matched with new approaches that use the full potential of the available technology. PowerPoint slides and recorded lectures do not create a great student experience. 

“What happens outside the lecture theatre is as important to students as the lectures themselves”

For students, the decision to attend a campus-based university is absolutely about the courses they will study and the brand and reputation of the institution. It is also about the freedom to be themselves, the sense of community and the engagement that going to university offers.  What happens outside the lecture theatre is as important to students as the lectures themselves.

Front 2 – Business as (Un)usual.

You will want to work with your COVID Response teams and your staff and students to understand and build on what has worked well and what is not sustainable for the longer term.

Are your systems and processes robust enough to function if the recovery takes longer or changes the size and shape of your organisation?  What are the implications for staff and students (and the institution) who have discovered that they can do their job and learn remotely?   

The two big priorities over the next six months will be graduating current students and attracting and securing students for the new academic year.

What do you need to do now to maximise your intake in a world where travel is restricted, the economy and public finances in disarray and confidence significantly reduced?  How do you demonstrate to students, carers and parents that such a significant investment in your university at this time is a good choice and will deliver a great experience and value for money?

Front 3 – Embracing the new reality

The world will never be the same again and the current crisis will impact the sector for at least the next three academic years.  I also believe it will lead to permanent change.  This means every strategy in place will need to be revisited.

This creates the opportunity to think differently. Competitive advantage and exceptional leadership are critical for organisations to weather storms and come through successfully. This means having the confidence and foresight to act decisively and embrace new situations rather than hoping that everything will return to normal and work out.

“Think about every aspect of your offer.. the courses your offer and the markets you target”

When I speak with universities about their goals and aspirations, the response is consistent.  They want to have the very best student experience; they want to play a key role in their communities, and they want to attract great researchers and extend knowledge and knowhow.

This doesn’t change as a result of COVID-19 but the environment does – your competitive landscape, where and how you play, the way you organise yourself to win and how long it might take will all now be different.

Think about every aspect of your delivery, from professional and support services to research, the academic offer, the student experience, the courses your offer and the markets you target.

COVID-19 shouldn’t undermine the role of universities but enhance it. The digital demon is truly out of the box and will be hard to put back. Embrace it and make it work for you, your students, your communities and the economy.

Julie Mercer is a partner at Cairneagle Associates, a strategy and management consultancy. Prior to this, Julie worked for the NAO for 10 years followed by 22 years at Deloitte where she led UK and Global education practices. She has over 30 years’ experience in advising on strategy, policy reform and operational restructuring; Julie now leads Cairneagle’s Higher Education practice.

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