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24 August 2020

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

3. Accounting for the student perspective


Professor Simon Gaskell
Chair of the QAA Board


In crafting their immediate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have appropriately placed consideration of the student experience at the centre of their planning, generally arguing that a necessarily different experience need not be inferior. But as we consider the longer-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, are we sufficiently clear about the features of the learning experience that are quintessential to higher education? And is there sufficient clarity about the student perspective to enable a comprehensive judgement of the suitability and acceptability of new approaches?


In the third of this series of blogs, based on conversations with about 20 higher education leaders from across the UK, I consider how the student perspective can and should influence thinking about the longer-term changes to UK higher education prompted or accelerated by the pandemic.


There is, of course, a risk of exaggerating the homogeneity of the UK student cohort and therefore overgeneralising the student perspective. For example, in some institutions, most of their students are 'mature' - they have not entered directly from school/college. Although the majority of young UK students have moved away from the parental home to study, some universities and colleges serve a substantial proportion of students living in the family home, with major implications for the student experience and perspective.


Furthermore, in my conversations some leaders suggested that the pandemic has re-emphasised the variation among students with respect to their appetite and ability to organise their own studies. Thus, an ideal learning model considers - in addition to the demands of the particular academic subject - the possibly diverse preferences and requirements of the student cohort being served.


Most leaders acknowledged the central importance of considering the student perspective in designing and introducing new modes of educational delivery. In the second blog in this series, focused on digital learning, I noted the points made in my conversations about the opportunities for student engagement - with academic staff and with fellow students - provided by online communication.


Though such mechanisms may seem distant from the traditional (but now rarely achieved) gold-standard of higher education - the one-to-one in-person tutorial - it would be a mistake to characterise online support mechanisms as necessarily 'depersonalised', particularly to a generation of students who routinely conduct their social lives as a natural mix of digital and in-person.


While many in higher education argue for an emphasis on personalisation of the learning experience, or at least bemoan any perceived depersonalisation, a clear consensus on what constitutes a personalised experience is more elusive. Some argue that students consider this as the provision of learning opportunities that are sufficiently flexible to meet their personal preferences and needs. Others emphasise the importance of direct interactions between academic staff and students in a manner that allows the individual student to influence the exchange. It is important that institutions work with their student bodies to develop a shared understanding.


If we argue, as the vast majority of leaders do, that the future of higher education should generally be a blend of digital and on-campus learning, we need to be clear about the key features of the latter that we must optimise. Few would suggest that the experience of attending a lecture with, say, 200 other students is genuinely 'personalised'. Nor, at a time of expanding digital learning opportunities, is it necessarily efficient - except (cynically) as a generator of 'contact hours'.


Nevertheless, there is evidence suggesting students presently see the on-campus component as an essential feature of the broader university experience, both social and academic - and not only for those courses (such as, the performing arts, engineering and laboratory sciences, or medicine) where practical components are intrinsic. What then are the features of campus-based learning that are considered beneficial by academic staff and students alike? An improved understanding will have important implications for university and college estates, likely with less space needed for formal lectures and much more for small group learning and informal interactions, including peer-to-peer.


In the conversations I have held with sector leaders, there was a clear enthusiasm to attach heightened consideration of the student perspective in redesigning learning programmes. Understanding that perspective will be critical also in considering new models and structures for degree programmes, once again prompted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; this topic will be the subject of the next blog in this series.