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23 September 2020


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

5. Implications for international activities and status


Professor Simon Gaskell
Chair of the QAA Board

In this last of a series of blogs based on conversations with 20 or so leaders in UK higher education, I pull together some common threads and consider implications for the international activities of UK institutions and the global status of UK HE.


While the duration of disruption caused by COVID-19 remains uncertain, it is clear that changes in the practice of higher education will be lasting, arguably for three reasons.

  1. The pandemic has usefully accelerated changes that were previously recognised as beneficial, but whose introduction had been delayed by system inertia.
  2. Fresh insights have emerged from the new context created by COVID-19.
  3. The likelihood of new pandemics or equivalent emergencies mean that a full return to previous practices would be unwise.

Adjustment to the conditions of the pandemic, for example by a rapid expansion of provisions for digital learning, has revealed an agility in the HE sector that belies its reputation. The development of longer-term changes must exploit new opportunities, while clearly articulating the underlying educational purpose and the rationale for particular models of degree programmes or their equivalents.


It has become almost de rigeur for any summary statement concerning UK HE to be prefaced by reference to its ‘world-class’ quality and status. While it is indeed true that the UK has much to celebrate in its universities and colleges, it is not inevitable that international students will continue to wish (or be able) to travel to the UK for their education, nor to study in centres in their own countries that are run by, or partner with, UK institutions. The present pandemic has created uncertainty about the numbers of international students who will enrol on UK campuses, and has severely curtailed international partnerships that rely on the ‘flying faculty’ model for educational input.


Regardless of how lasting these perturbations prove to be (and they may, of course, be exacerbated by international political tensions), the pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring that the characteristics of UK HE are distinctive in content and quality, whether delivered in the UK or beyond. That distinctiveness will be hard to maintain using unsophisticated digital offerings, providing further emphasis (if any were needed) of the imperative to develop interactive and personalised online provisions.


Furthermore, the explicit recognition of distinctive aspects and of their importance to students of different cultural backgrounds is related to the question (raised in the first of these blogs) of the fundamental purpose of HE - or at least its UK variant. If one accepts the notion that higher education represents a process of knowledge discovery by the individual (as opposed to delivery of knowledge), then the implications of that underlying principle (such as the encouragement of enquiry and discovery skills) ought to be apparent in the offering to domestic and international students alike.


It is also important that the sector takes action to demonstrate its appetite for enhancing and rigorously assessing the quality of transnational education, in order to maintain the currently strong competitive position with regard to the confidence of international students and national governments.


While uncertainties around the recruitment and enrolment of international students for study in the UK has understandably focused initially on the financial implications of the loss of a major source of income, the most thoughtful leaders are considering the potential impact on the educational experience of all students. If we aspire to a higher education that transcends national and cultural boundaries, then the presence of an international cohort of students is a powerful tool.


The pressures on international student recruitment should also prompt a repeated articulation of the national benefits, again beyond the financial. Enlightened policies concerning visas, work permits and language training/testing send a powerful message of welcome which in future years will translate into goodwill towards the UK on the part of influential citizens of other countries. While these arguments are familiar within the UK HE sector, their broader appreciation cannot be assumed.


In summary, the lasting effects of COVID-19 on the international activities of universities and colleges reflect broader changes expected in the sector. As a general observation, the institutions that emerge most strongly from the current pandemic will be those that go beyond adaptation to exploitation of new approaches in the context of a clear demonstration of educational objectives.