8th May, 2020 - Laurie Forcier

Re-engineering Global Higher Ed Following COVID-19

Despite its slow-moving reputation, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted global higher education to shift to an almost completely remote model in the space of just a few short weeks. But there’s significantly more change to come, and the future remains uncertain. The questions of what next? for higher education and where will it happen? were the topic of our second Learnit virtual event, compellingly moderated by Jenny Anderson, senior reporter for Quartz. 

Our global panel included four higher education leaders who discussed the decisions they are making now, and the opportunities and challenges they see ahead:

  • Ed Byrne, the President and Principal of King’s College London who will re-open for the Autumn term, with COVID-19 testing regimes in place, and with programmes delivered in three ways: in person, online and through a hybrid model.
  • Michael Sorrell, the President of Paul Quinn College, the only urban work college in America.  PQC will operate online only in the Autumn term and will continue to ‘exercise an abundance of caution’ until a vaccine or testing is in place.
  • José Escamilla de los Santos, the Director of Innovation for Tecnológico de Monterrey, a 90,000 student university spread across 29 campuses in 26 cities in Mexico. The leadership at TdM hasn’t made a final decision about autumn.
  • Lauren Herckis, an expert on faculty culture and the adoption of edtech, from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. She views COVID-19 as a singular moment in terms of changing faculty adoption of edtech so completely, and that we won’t experience this kind of ‘crisis transformation’ again.

Some key learnings from the discussion: 

  1. The Autumn Term will be wildly different from previous university experiences.
    • Each university leader has a different approach, but all are united that a full physical return to campus is not planned in 2020. The 45,000 student-strong King’s College London will reopen its physical campus in the autumn – but with the massive caveat that only 15% of the typical number of students will be allowed on campus at any given time. To make it work, they’ll be delivering their programmes in three ways: in-person, online, and through a complex hybrid ‘full-sync’ model. They’ll also be relying on the university’s medical research teams to create the necessary COVID-19 testing regimes for students and staff. Paul Quinn College will operate online only this autumn, and potentially longer, and Tec de Monterrey are adapting their curricula to a more ‘flexible and resilient model’ that can be delivered regardless of context.

  2. Institutions are hard at work recreating the value proposition of the university.
    • Our leaders partially define the value proposition of universities as excellent academic programming. Michael spoke of the importance of building remote learning experiences delivered ‘in a way that is engaging, that creates a sense of urgency for students to participate.’ But they equally describe it as being about community, and Ed and José spoke about the work they have done to build the ‘feeling’ of being at a university, from student clubs to wellness offerings. Lauren concurred that the less tangible aspects will be equally important to content, saying  that we know ‘students can learn well in remote, hybrid… all kinds of models of education, but the university was founded… as a community of experience.’ 

  3. Universities are ‘building the plane as they fly’.
    • José spoke about TdM’s experience building online programmes, saying, ‘Normally when you build an online course, you do it several months beforehand, you plan what you want to do and then you start to deliver.’ Now they’re delivering while at the same time redoing their plan. Ed shared that KCL was prepared for online learning because of their existing online master’s programmes and partnerships – however, the question of how they return 5,000 researchers to their labs is a major ongoing piece of work.  Michael noted that if the physical campus is closed for a longer period, they will use that ‘gift of time…to reimagine the possibilities’ of the institution, including partnering with an outside group to build a completely new online learning experience. 

  4. Tuition fees will likely remain the same regardless of whether learning is in person, online or a hybrid.
    • Our leaders discussed the ways that the business model for higher education have, and will need to, change. However, for the time being, this is more about the delivery of programming, and not about changing the cost of tuition. Although Michael spoke to the ways that PQC has dramatically driven down the cost of their tuition in recent years, he, Ed and José all said that they wouldn’t be changing tuition fees due to online learning, because they expected they would be able to deliver the same level of educational quality as they did in person. However, all said they would be simplifying or cutting other fees, such as accommodation, health, activities or student union fees. When questioned as to whether the changes in cost and delivery would make university more accessible, Lauren weighed in: ‘I think this is a shift, not a transformation to more or less accessible. (Instead it will be) more accessible for some and less accessible for others with the blossoming of these new opportunities.’

  5. This period of intense change is challenging, but a good experience in the ‘real world’ and instructive of the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset.
    • In discussing the most challenging part of the accelerated change to online, Michael said  ‘We are talking about a generational change taking place in an incredibly short period of time. And we are talking about doing it in a sector that has been historically resistant to change outside of a very controlled environment. Here’s the good news: this is life. What we are dealing with now is actually the most realistic gift we can give our students. We are shattering this illusion of control; that you can control what is going to happen to you step by step by step. The reality is that you need to develop an entrepreneur’s mentality to managing your life.’ 

Our next virtual event will take place in a couple of weeks. To grab an early spot, email hello@learnit.world. 

To watch the session in full, see the recorded video below.

Keep in touch