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10 September 2020


The lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: conversations with sector leaders

4. Towards new models of higher education


Professor Simon Gaskell
Chair of the QAA Board

A consistent theme in the discussions I have held recently with leaders in UK higher education (and which form the basis of the series of blogs of which this is the fourth) has been that the COVID-19 pandemic has primarily accelerated trends that were already apparent. HE institutions, for example, have responded to the pandemic by vastly increasing the presentation of learning materials and interactive sessions in digital form - as I discussed in the second blog in this series.


In this blog, I consider the potential re-configuring of degree programmes and related issues, developments - accelerated by the pandemic - that are prompted both by new styles of learning and by the needs and preferences of students and employers.


The flexibility of online learning is conducive to models of HE that involve ‘unbundling’ of degree programmes to a collection of their constituent parts. In particular, increasing reliance on (particularly asynchronous) digital learning suggests that completion of all parts need not be achieved within the ‘normal’ timeframe of degree-level study - or even in a ‘conventional’ order. Accumulation of the total of credits deemed to represent completion of a degree can take place over a time period that suits the individual student and is perhaps much longer than traditionally applies in UK universities (though commonplace in some other countries). Indeed, the concept of the ‘academic year’ is no longer critical in this context.


The choice of model raises fundamental questions, such as whether the learning outcomes of a degree programme are simply the collection of learning outcomes from each constituent module. The implication of the more traditional UK model of full-time study over 3-4 years has been that the benefits of a degree programme derive at least in part from the correct juxtaposition and interconnectedness of individual modules; in short, in educational terms the total is greater than the sum of the parts.


My conversations with HE leaders suggest that different institutions will exhibit quite different levels of enthusiasm for the unbundled model for degree programmes described above, with some reluctant to lose the coherence of current practice. This divergence of views may lead to a new differentiation within the sector, perhaps related to distinct educational missions. Institutions that share a similar approach may be content to accept credits awarded by each other, when determining the progress of an individual student towards degree completion.


The flexibility associated with digital learning is helpful also in the development and provision of ‘micro-courses’ of limited and closely defined content (in some cases leading to the award of ‘micro-credentials’). The demand for such provision appears likely to increase, to meet the needs both of employers looking to increase the skills of their workforce in particular areas and employees who may require periodic re-focusing of their careers during their working lives. Indeed, some institutions may wish to prepare for the possibility that periodic engagement by individuals through a series of micro-courses, while engaged in full-time employment, becomes the model of HE preferred by many employers.


The economic and social changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to provide further impetus to micro-course development. A careful approach is required to the assessment of the quality of micro-courses, and of the standards represented by micro-credentials, both to avoid a diminution of higher education and to differentiate such offerings from those of a multitude of other providers.


Achievement of consensus in this area across UK universities and HE colleges could do much to preserve the international reputation of the sector (a topic to which I will return in the final blog of this series).