CourseraThe Covid-19 pandemic forces UK universities to reimagine their campuses

The Covid-19 pandemic forces UK universities to reimagine their campuses

Remote learning makes it easier to tailor degrees to the job market and the needs of students, but legacy systems and digital poverty must be addressed

More than ever, countries and their citizens are looking to education to help them through the pandemic and its economic fallout, Mike Damiano, the Coursera for Campus director for EMEA, told a Times Higher Education roundtable on digital transformation in UK universities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated economies around the world. In the UK alone, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and many are looking to higher education to help them upskill or reskill. Universities need to meet that demand, and to do that, they need flexible remote learning geared to what students and the job market require.

“We’ve gone through an emergency period and are starting to understand what can and can’t work when it comes to digital technologies,” said Damiano.

When UK higher education institutions closed their physical doors in March, management and faculty pivoted to offer courses online. This move, which many had planned to institute over the course of years, was accomplished in a month or less, the roundtable participants said.

For many institutions, however, the move online has revealed legacy systems that may hinder rather than enable universities in the training of job-ready graduates. “We’re starting to realise that it might not be about three-year degree programmes, but that what the world might need is something much more flexible than that,” said Jane McNeil, interim pro vice-chancellor of education at Nottingham Trent University.

Wyn Morgan, former vice-president for education at the University of Sheffield, noted that many degree courses have accumulated modules that don’t necessarily sit well together. “We are now talking about what skills we need our students to have. What do we actually want our degree programmes to lead to? I think the digital part was a key element within that,” Morgan said.

Reframing universities as places where students can access lifelong learning could be a way for institutions to provide learners with the skills they need. “Lifelong learning means that you learn when you need to learn and what you need to learn,” Anne Boddington, pro vice-chancellor at Kingston University, said. But that requires more flexibility on the part of institutions.

“We need to start reimagining the campus,” said Simon Guy, global pro vice-chancellor for digital, international, sustainability and development at Lancaster University. “Colleagues are reporting greater engagement with their students than face to face in a big lecture hall. Even when we can come back, [faculty] wouldn’t necessarily choose to go back to the lecture hall, and they’re now thinking how they can complement their online teaching with different kinds of student engagement.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and the migration to digital campuses has forced UK universities to re-examine many of their structures and question their role in society. “The whole sector was ripe for disruption, and the pandemic came along and disrupted it,” said Eleanor Shaw, associate principal at the University of Strathclyde. “I believe that universities have unique areas of expertise, knowledge and resources, and it would be great if universities nurtured what they were truly brilliant at.”

However, institutions still face challenges in their quest to implement digital technologies. This year’s speedy migration online highlighted widespread digital poverty, which meant not all students and staff had access to resources such as hardware, the internet or even a quiet place to study. “Digital poverty has hit people really hard,” said McNeil. “We’ve seen disadvantage up close through the medium of [Microsoft] Teams. We’ve brought in much more student support.”

Remote learning has not been able to replicate the interactions that take place naturally on campus. “The huge problem we’re seeing is the loneliness, the amount of time people are spending alone,” said Juliette Hussey, vice-president of global relations at Trinity College Dublin. Campus closures also mean students are locked out of the clubs and societies that are a fundamental part of the higher education experience for many – and where they learn the soft skills that are in such high demand in the job market. “It is a critical part of their education, and that’s something that is much harder to replicate,” Hussey said.

The migration online could offer new opportunities for rural economies and the people who want to live there. “We’ve sucked students into universities and they all mingle with each other, and that’s great,” said Boddington. “But it is also sucking the best talent out of other parts of the country.” Through courses geared towards remote or lifelong learning, students could stay in their communities without having to move to another city and take their skills and talents with them.

The panel

Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
Bhavin Bhagalia, partnerships director, Coursera for Campus EMEA, Coursera
Anne Boddington, pro vice-chancellor, Kingston University
Mike Damiano, director, Coursera for Campus EMEA, Coursera
Simon Guy, pro vice-chancellor global (digital, international, sustainability and development), Lancaster University
Juliette Hussey, vice-president of global relations, Trinity College Dublin
Jane McNeil, interim pro vice-chancellor (education), Nottingham Trent University
Wyn Morgan, former vice-president for education, University of Sheffield
Frances Quirke, partnerships director, Coursera for Campus EMEA, Coursera
Eleanor Shaw, associate principal, University of Strathclyde

Watch the roundtable on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Brought to you by