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22 July 2020

The Lasting Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic: Conversations with Sector Leaders

1. An Introduction



Professor Simon Gaskell
Chair of the QAA Board



The COVID-19 pandemic has required universities and colleges across the UK to introduce new practices of teaching and learning. QAA has issued a series of documents to assist institutions in the maintenance of educational quality and the continued achievement of learning outcomes. Planning for the next academic year - when student expectations will rightly go beyond an acceptance of purely emergency measures - is well under way. But what of the longer term? Which of the changes prompted or required by the pandemic will have an extended currency - either through necessity or because of a realisation that they have lasting merit?


To begin to explore these questions I have recently held a series of 20 or so conversations - each lasting up to an hour - with leaders in UK higher education (primarily heads of institution). To encourage a free exchange of ideas, I emphasised that, while some form of written summary of these discussions might be helpful, all input would be unattributable. I am extremely grateful to all those individuals who generously devoted their time to this exercise.


This is the first in a series of blogs summarising the ideas expressed in these conversations and focuses on general observations made. Further blogs will address key specific issues.


The rapidity of most institutions’ responses to the pandemic has impressed many - and surprised them also. Universities and colleges have shown that, contrary to stereotype, they are able to move fast and decisively. This newly recognised ability must not be lost; in the words of one leader, it is essential that there is no return to the ‘old sclerotic ways’ of the past. The recent requirement for rapid executive action has resulted in interestingly different responses with respect to the role of the governing body.


In some institutions, non-executive oversight has effectively been paused; in at least one institution, on the other hand, the governing body has demanded close review of all major executive actions. Neither approach is tenable in the medium to long term.  None of the leaders to whom I spoke thought that a new status quo was in prospect; institutions must accordingly adapt to enable non-executive oversight (for example, of the internal processes to ensure academic standards) without inappropriate intrusion on the work of the executive leadership.


The recognition that a new stability is a distant prospect has widespread implications, mandating a new agility in educational approaches and leadership style and mechanisms. There is a willingness - as the assembly of guidelines by QAA has exemplified - to share good practice between institutions. Indeed, several leaders made the prediction (though this may have been inadequately differentiated from hope) that the pendulum that swings in higher education between competition and collaboration may move back towards collaboration.


Any major challenge to an established system is bound to prompt questions about fundamental purpose. If substantial changes are made to mechanisms of teaching and learning, they must be true to the fundamental purpose of higher education. Do we have a sufficiently clear articulation of what higher education (as distinct from, for example, further education) is for - and, crucially, is it widely understood and agreed beyond the HE sector itself? If the student experience of university is primarily one of intellectual discovery (as many would argue), are institutions succeeding in promoting this process to advance benefits (financial and otherwise) both for the individual and society more generally? That the questions need asking suggests that the answers are not self-evident.


Finally, the leaders to whom I spoke considered that the primary effect of COVID-19 has been markedly to accelerate trends - such as the move to digital learning - that were in place before the pandemic. I shall cover these specific trends in the remaining blogs in this series.