What awaits is not a ‘new normal’ but the ‘next normal’

Universities have proved that we can change quickly, but we must be ready to do it again if we are to adapt to the new realities that lie ahead, says Chris Husbands

April 28, 2020
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Whether its Burberry switching production from trench coats to non-surgical gowns, Christian Dior from perfume to hand sanitisers, or Formula One companies racing to produce ventilators, the efforts of many organisations, big and small, in helping to fight Covid-19 have been extraordinary.

Universities are no exception. They have proved their worth in the repurposing of medical research, the availability of 3D printers, the deployment of healthcare students and staff, even in the use of car parking spaces for NHS workers. But this crisis will pass, and universities – including Sheffield Hallam University – will find themselves operating in a post-pandemic world that may be vastly different in many unexpected ways.

As I write this, the newspapers are full of lurid headlines, describing this as the biggest economic shock since the Second World War/for 100 years/since the Industrial Revolution and even, in one headline – though how they are measuring the data I don’t know – the biggest economic shock for 300 years. Whichever your point of reference, the economic and social devastation wrought by the virtual shutdown of the economy is deep and extensive.

It’s almost impossible to assess the impact of all this on universities. It’s all but certain that international higher education will be changed out of all recognition. The propensity of students to travel for their education will take a serious blow. Almost everyone expects the numbers of overseas students to fall, and to recover, if at all, only slowly. Advantage will lie with those universities that can use the experience of remote delivery during the crisis to develop a distinctive and high-quality remote online learning offer.

There are also wildly different predictions of the future of domestic student numbers. The 2020s see a sharp rise in the number of UK 18-year-olds, so, theoretically, demand should increase. But it would be foolhardy to predict the lasting impact of prolonged lockdown on educational aspirations and student confidence.

Most certainly, patterns of demand – the sorts of courses young people want to study and the ways in which they want to study them – will change. Patterns of delivery will change. There’s already evidence that remote teaching – in schools and universities – is reinforcing gaps between the engagement in learning of more and less advantaged students.

Like all universities, our hardship fund has seen a huge demand from students as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In response, we have launched the Sheffield Hallam Coronavirus Appeal to support additional hardship bursaries. Looking ahead, it will be even more important for universities to do as much as possible to support students from those communities who will bear the brunt of the economic impact of this crisis.

And as is almost every other sector of the economy, universities themselves are vulnerable in this uncertain environment, whether because of a significant decline in the number of international students, the unpredictable admissions cycle or impacts on research funding. But the queue outside the Treasury of deserving cases for government support is already a long one. The pressures on the public purse over the next decade will mean difficult choices for the government. Securing policy support and certainty is absolutely critical for our sector, and this remains a top priority.

Within the university, we are building a set of academic and financial scenarios for the future to enable us to think through the decisions we may need to make. The intentions are threefold: first, to make sure we can identify routes through the challenges that are consistent with our strategy and mission, rather than responding ad hoc to different challenges; second, to look for opportunities that are created as the economy and society emerge from lockdown; and third, to learn from the ways in which we have responded, at speed, to the crisis.

That last point is crucial. As a university – indeed, as a higher education sector – we learned some important lessons in March. The first, which was by no means obvious three months ago, was that we had the capacity and capability to make quick and effective changes to the way a large organisation worked. When we needed to be rapid and decisive, we could be. No one would have wanted to make the decisions we had to make, but the experience of doing so, of empowering teams across the university to rethink their ways of working and to make changes rapidly, was in many ways exhilarating.

That agility, shared sense of purpose and responsiveness is something we and all universities will want to embed, with potentially profound impact on the way we deploy resource, use the estate, combine face-to-face and remote ways of teaching and working. In one of the many future-focused briefings I’ve read over the past two weeks, the language has not been of “returning to normal” nor even of the “new normal” but rather of the “next normal” – which will be different from the way higher education operated before March 2020.

Universities – including Sheffield Hallam University – have demonstrated their value to the public realm. That in itself marks a significant shift from many pre-crisis perceptions of the sector as out of touch and inefficient. But the future is uncertain. There will be some tough decisions to make as we grapple with it. We will need to build on what we have learned about our sector, our students and ourselves; we will need to learn quickly and – as we did in March – be willing to make decisive changes.

Sir Chris Husbands is vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University.

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