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24 April 2020

COVID-19: What next for higher education?


Vicki Stott
Executive Director of Operations (Deputy CEO), QAA

"…[C]oronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to 'normality', trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next." 
Arundhati Roy, Financial Times, 3 April 2020

Over the past six weeks, QAA has worked with our members across the sector to produce guidance and illustrate it with examples of good practice and put it all into the public domain. Now, like Arundhati Roy, we’re beginning to peer through the portal and wonder… what next?


It seems unlikely that we will have certainty about the context higher education will operate in any time soon. Yet students need to make decisions about their future, and institutions need to be sure that the plans they make in the next few weeks will remain fit for purpose over an indeterminate number of months. Totally apart from the practical arrangements, those plans need to work for students, psychologically and socially. Can arrangements integrate not only the pure, academic elements of the student experience, but also the social elements: learning from your fellow students, and the experience of higher education as a rite of passage?


Universities UK has made a powerful case for government support, but the Financial Times splash on 23 April suggests its success is by no means assured, and if granted, the government will expect the sector to address the issue of what the 2019 Conservative manifesto described as ‘low quality courses’.  


We’ve heard speculation that the academic year should realign with the calendar year: buying time for vaccine development and forcing a shift to post-qualification admissions. How might this sit with an unchanged school year? Other speculation suggests some institutional realignment, with new style polytechnics delivering more vocationally-oriented courses, and research-intensive universities covering an academic landscape geared toward political and economic priority subjects.  


The range of discussion is broad: will the new university year begin in September? Will students be able to gather on campus in September but not attend lectures? Or will we have to continue remote teaching until January? If the year begins with remote teaching, how will it transition to on-site provision? Who will come to campus, and when? Do we have differential starts to the year with some online and some on campus? Arriving whenever they can? How would a staggered cohort catch up? How would they ever integrate with each other (hard enough when everyone’s new together)? What message would this send to international students in particular?


It is hard, from here, to see when international students may be able to come. There are few countries where end-of-year exams are taking place as normal. English language testing is almost at a standstill worldwide and visa processing at a crawl. Travel restrictions may be lifted and re-imposed according to the ebb and flow of the virus around the world, and that's even if airlines survive and flights are sufficiently flexible and affordable.


Do we then think more radically?  Could the year (whenever it starts) encompass online provision for mass lectures, but bring students into campus periodically in small groups for seminar or small class teaching? This might not work equally well for all students. What about those who don’t have a home, or who need additional educational or emotional support? 


Perhaps students could make use of facilities – laboratories, libraries, language labs – at the institution closest to their home, no matter where they are enrolled to study. This would require an unprecedented level of cross-institutional collaboration, but it’s an interesting idea. Still, not perfect: what about students from rural areas, or international students?


If we accept that all international students would effectively be transnational students for all or part of next year, how do we manage that? In many countries online delivery is not recognised, carrying a real risk that a degree earned that way might be seen as low quality. And of course, in some countries, internet access is heavily restricted.


Universities will need to make decisions about what they’re offering (and how) soon, so that students know what has changed since they initially applied and can make informed choices. Yet, the alternatives are also bleak. With a significant recession forecast, jobs will be hard to come by for the unqualified and inexperienced. And a gap year of travel looks a bit like wishful thinking.


So perhaps we should also prepare to think the unthinkable. What if it were the sector that takes a gap year? What if academic year 2020-21 simply doesn’t happen, at least on campus?


It seems there are no easy decisions in all this. It is all messy. Probably expensive, too. What seems clear is that flexibility will be the key. The institutions most likely to thrive will be those which can withstand the tightening and easing of social distancing rules, give students options for on and off-site provision, find solutions for international students, and accommodate differential starts to the year. 


The next challenge for QAA is to consider how these scenarios impact on academic standards and the quality not only of teaching and learning, but of students’ experience and how the sum of all that affects outcomes. We remain in regular contact with governments, regulators and funders about the challenges that lie ahead. We will also be convening groups to share thoughts so that we can prepare guidance that will support the sector through next year, and into the future. If you would like to be part of that conversation, please do get in touch by emailing