Covid-19 is a chance to rebuild the reputation of universities

Universities should create more strategic partnerships with the commercial world to boost their public perception, argues Rupert Younger  

November 3, 2020
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Source: Reuters

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University administrators have spent the past seven months thinking through how best to bring students back on campus for the 2020-21 academic year. The stakes are high – they must protect the health of students, teachers and research staff; deliver on promises made to students around their learning experience; and at the same time ensure that the financial numbers add up. This is a significant challenge. Most universities are facing a shortfall in funding as international students either cancel or defer their places, and as the costs of putting in place the required safety measures take their toll.

While none of this is to be underestimated, these concerns should not be the sole focus of universities and their leadership teams. Universities have a wider systemic perception problem anchored on growing criticisms that they do not equip graduates with the skills required to succeed in the workplace, and a sense that the student debt acquired from time spent at university is not worth the investment.

The UK’s National Student Survey, created in 2005, has highlighted these concerns, which has led some universities to “dumb down” or “spoon-feed” their students in the hope that they will deliver higher ranking scores. Government ministers have now ordered an official review of this survey in response to the damaging reputational themes that have emerged.

More widely, the general public don’t seem to value what universities provide. A 2018 survey commissioned by Universities UK found that less than 50 per cent of those surveyed felt “positive” about universities, and that the majority of those interviewed “rarely think about universities, largely finding the sector irrelevant”.

One of the most critical decisions for universities is how best to use new technologies to deliver their teaching this year. What should be the mix of online and in-person delivery? How should they organise class interaction and shared learning using virtual breakout rooms? How should they reshape the reading lists to better reflect the requirements of the new classroom environment?

The shift to digital formats should have been easier than it has been, not least because many universities have been experimenting with massive open online courses (Moocs) and other digital-delivery formats over the past decade. But while the number of students registering for Moocs continues to grow, the number of Mooc degrees offered in 2019 was less than half that in 2018, according to ICEF Monitor. One thing seems clear from Covid-19: digital formats are here to stay. Universities need to see this as a new opportunity to showcase their activities to the general public and to engage a wider and more diverse group of students who otherwise would find it difficult to attend university.

Now is the time for a bold new approach to higher education. The connective communication technologies that we now have – such as Teams and Zoom – have resulted in an unprecedented ability to engage on a mass scale. Universities need to grab the opportunity that this connectivity provides to deliver a root-and-branch refresh of the curriculum and the way that it is taught. A key part of this is thinking differently about interaction with the commercial world. Partnership, not distance, should drive this new thinking. 

Students in masks bumping elbows 

Universities, in fairness, are trying to do more to involve businesses in the student experience. The University of Oxford, where I work, has created a social purpose-driven entrepreneurship centre called the Foundry, which now has more than 3,000 undergraduate and postgraduate members developing new ventures and ideas. Careers services have stepped up, too, becoming a frontline activity for universities seeking higher student satisfaction and rankings. But it should go deeper than this. Universities have to build real partnerships with the world their students seek to enter after graduation. This should be based on three core elements.

First, commercial partners should be invited to co-develop core course content. I accept that for some, this represents a major departure and that critics will state that long-established academic foundational teaching should not be subject to temporal commercial forces. I think such fears are overblown. In fact, within certain university departments such as medical science, art and the law, this co-creation already exists. I see no reason why, for example, a computer science course could not be co-designed with Google. Such a course could start with the basics of mathematical modelling, algorithm analysis, software engineering and programming, while creating new space for discussion and engagement on practical projects showing how theory works in real-world settings. 

Second, partners should be invited into the classroom, collaborating with faculty to create the energy and relevance that students crave when developing their specific areas of knowledge. It is not hard to see how this would add value. English students discussing modern texts with the authors; classical studies students engaging with archaeologists to discuss the design and construction of ancient Greek temples; geographers working through the impact of the planet’s physical properties alongside environmental consultants and NGOs.

Third, partnerships should include, in a structured format, innovative work placements and specialist student projects that tackle real-world issues. Work placements today are often seen as an adjunct to core courses, or something that is up to the student to secure in order to beef up a CV and increase the chances of a job after graduation. Such an approach misses the point for both student and employer. Far better to identify current projects, structure teams from different universities to tackle them, build in critical analysis and insights as the projects develop, and assess student progress as part of the final degree award.

Universities would see multiple wider spin-off benefits from this deeper partnership approach. Funding and sponsorship agreements could be more strategic, addressing wider, societally valuable outcomes. Students from more diverse backgrounds, and those who would not traditionally have considered university, might be attracted to apply. And we would see a better prepared student group enter the workplace upon graduation. 

Reputations are built on real foundations. If universities are to address criticisms of irrelevance and lack of value for money, they should take the opportunity of this global dislocation to radically rethink their relationships with the commercial world. Covid-19, in fact, offers the best chance in a generation to improve the reputations of universities around the world. But it will take imagination, energy and ambition to do this well.

Rupert Younger is founder and director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Digital changes could boost real-world image

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