Have young universities adapted better to the Covid-19 crisis?

The pandemic has hit older populations harder than the young. Might the same be true of universities? Ellie Bothwell considers if the flexibility and agility of younger institutions made them more resilient than their longer established peers

June 23, 2021
Contortionist next to an older man on a bench illustrating flexibility of young universities
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Two decades before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Canada’s Concordia University created a production studio for the development of online courses. In 2018, it started work on a comprehensive digital strategy, opening a lab for innovation in teaching and learning, to provide a space for academics to think creatively about “next-generation teaching” as well as receive the technical support they needed from staff.

When the institution was forced to make the shift to “a pretty much fully online environment last March, it was helpful to already be headed down that road”, says its president and vice-chancellor, Graham Carr, who adds that in 2019 the institution received 35,000 registrations for online courses while two out of every three graduates had taken at least one online course as part of their degree.

However, he suggests, Concordia’s relative preparedness was not simply down to excellent foresight or good fortune but was a consequence of one of its fundamental characteristics: its young age. At 47 years old, it is ranked joint 149th in the Times Higher Education Young University Rankings 2021, and it brands itself on its website as “a next-generation university, continually reimagining the future of higher education”.

“I wouldn’t want to say something negative about the older, established universities, but the fact that we’re a younger university means, in part, that we have a strong commitment to being innovative, to trying to identify niches where we can differentiate ourselves from more established universities, and to providing solutions to real-world problems,” Carr says.

“It’s probably a challenge to use ‘nimble’ and ‘university’ in the same sentence, but I think that because we’ve been pursuing a strategy of trying to be as innovative and responsive to student needs and changing research orientations [as possible], that’s just part of who we are as a university. That reflex comes perhaps more naturally to us than it would come to some universities that have much more established traditions and much deeper connections to the past.”


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Carr’s comments align with a common narrative in higher education that positions young universities as agile and flexible, in contrast to their slow and stiff elders that are impervious to major change. Clearly universities of all ages responded rapidly to the pandemic, with many moving their teaching and other activities online almost overnight. But was this shift easier for more youthful institutions? And are newer universities becoming more appealing to students?

Ann De Schepper, vice-rector of the University of Antwerp and chair of its School of Education, believes that the institution’s young age has brought advantages over the past year. Antwerp, which is positioned 11th in the Young University Rankings, was founded in its current form in 2003, following a merger.

“We are still flexible. We are not too large too, so we can work together with all faculties,” says De Schepper. “If you want to try something out, you can start with believers [at the institution] and then roll it out to the whole university community. That’s maybe easier in a young institution than in an older one.”

She adds that students have a strong voice in the institution, another attribute she believes is more common in newer universities and one that has enabled students to feel supported and heard during Covid-19. A case in point is the Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) Alliance – a European University network of 10 young research-intensive universities, including Antwerp, and four non-academic partners. While the chair of the board is one of the universities’ presidents, its vice-chair is a student.

“When we set up our structures, it was in another time period from the set-up of structures of older universities [and at a point] where it was very normal that students were involved in policy,” De Schepper says.

“Students really have a voice and can send us their ideas about what works, what does not work, what are our strengths, what we really need to change.”

Attila Brungs, vice-chancellor and president of the University of Technology Sydney, which is ranked ninth in the Young University Rankings, says newer universities tend to “focus on being collegiate and open” across the whole institution, which in turn enables them to be “far more agile”.

“A number of young universities make this part of their culture because they’re young and they have to take other advantages than the weight of tradition and history,” he says.

“That’s not a criticism of older universities or [to say] that all older universities don’t have these characteristics. But I think some of the characteristics are easier for young universities.”

Brungs says these qualities helped UTS “respond very quickly to some big changes that we needed to make” during the pandemic and will also enable the 33-year-old institution to “drive some of the strategies that we want in a post-Covid world”, such as preparing students for the “next generation of jobs” and doubling down on lifelong learning.

“At the moment, over half our students come out of school into university. While that is always important, in the future that will be a very small proportion of the students that we have at UTS. Similarly, while blended learning is really important, particularly for an undergraduate context, in the future we’ll have the majority of our students engaged remotely with our campus or engaging in a very different way,” he says.

“We have lots of teams working on how we have this real shift in the university. I think it’s easier to do as a young university.”

Brungs also believes that newer institutions are “seen as far more relevant for people’s careers” and are therefore increasingly appealing to students.

Kite surfer with tanker in the background

However, while young universities make a convincing case for their innovative and agile qualities, they tend to be poorer than their older counterparts and have less established reputations – two factors that could be of great significance as the world enters a recession. To what extent do younger universities see their levels of funding and prestige as disadvantages?

Antwerp’s De Schepper says the financial impact of the pandemic “is a bit more difficult for young universities”.

“It’s a bit easier for older universities, which are large and have some more reserves and provisions, because it was really an expensive period – extra staff, extra educational pedagogies, extra psychological support for students, extra ICT investments and so on,” she says.

Brungs adds that “the money part is always a concern” and philanthropic donations give “an advantage for the older universities”. But he says that although his institution’s foundation for philanthropy is in the tens of millions, rather than the billion-plus range of the 168-year-old University of Melbourne, much of that funding cannot be drawn on during a crisis because it is limited to specific purposes.

Meanwhile, Brungs argues, the prestige that comes with age is a less valuable asset during the current crisis.

“In past crises, the weight of hundreds of years of history would have been a great benefit. But I think the market now is looking far more for what are the courses – particularly the lifetime learning [courses], microcredentials, short courses, postgraduate courses – that are really fit for purpose. So I think having the reputation that you are agile and have the right courses and the right student experience outweighs, or at least balances out, hundreds of years of history,” he says.

Carr says there is “no question that because we’re a younger university, our endowment is smaller than older universities’”. This “tighter budget reality” means that Concordia has to choose carefully where to invest and must “make every dollar count”. But Carr does not see this solely as a disadvantage.

“We’ve been operating with smaller budgets than other universities for some time. That focuses the mind. That makes you really differentiate between what are the strategic priorities that are really going to make a significant difference for the university versus what’s something that might be nice to have and be advantageous but probably isn’t going to differentiate us,” he says.

But Myong-In Lee, dean of the department of urban and environmental engineering at South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), believes there have been “far more disadvantages” for young universities during the pandemic.

Lee says that one of the biggest blows for UNIST has been that its field-weighted citation impact has fallen for the first time in its 12-year history, dropping from 1.79 to 1.65 between 2019 and 2020.

“We didn’t have many chances to present our research outputs in international meetings or conferences,” he says.

“I think older universities will do better in terms of citations because they already have a well-established research network and renowned scholars. Our university has a relatively small number of highly cited scholars.”

Another concern for Lee is the huge downturn in the number of students on international exchange programmes. He says the total of inbound and outbound students connected to the institution last year was below 10, and he worries that this decline will have a “negative impact on our university’s reputation”.

The research associate of the special research field computational neuroscience Thorsten Kluss (l) takes part in an experiment at the computational neuroscience department of the university in Bremen, Germany

Bernd Scholz-Reiter is rector of the 50-year-old University of Bremen, which is a member of the YUFE Alliance, and president of the Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN). However, he is sceptical about the idea that age has been a significant factor for universities during the pandemic.

“Covid-19 has represented a huge challenge for all universities, and the distinction between young and old is not sufficient to have a clear picture of what has been happening in the world of higher education in the past year,” he says.

“In general, we see that young universities are more flexible, and they can adapt more easily than the big tankers. That is the general narrative. But I’m really not sure whether it’s true for the pandemic because I think also big universities have reacted to the pandemic quite well.”

For Scholz-Reiter, a more significant factor than age is the fact that Bremen was already part of two young university networks.

“It was very easy to adapt to the new technology because we learned from each other,” he says.

One way in which the alliances adapted was by providing virtual mobility experiences to students. While it was initially intended as a substitute for physical mobility during Covid-related travel restrictions, Scholz-Reiter says a hybrid model might be used in future.

“After the crisis it might be a good idea to prepare physical mobility using virtual tools. Maybe before the physical mobility starts [students could] be already connected to students at the other locations, rather than making friends only when they’re already there,” he says.

Antwerp’s De Schepper agrees that one of the main benefits of being part of the YUFE Alliance was being able to “exchange good practice”, and she also cites virtual mobility as one of the success stories over the past year.

“We managed to have a catalogue of 70 courses completely online in all 10 partner universities. We realised it was something we could keep when we start again with the physical mobility. Because students, for instance in Antwerp, could study their own programme in Antwerp and take a course in Finland as well as another course in Cyprus. This is not possible when there is only physical mobility,” she says.

But Scholz-Reiter says the shift to online teaching and learning should not be seen as the only way in which universities have proven their resilience during the crisis.

“How are universities engaging with society? How can universities play a role in helping their surrounding communities in these difficult times? How can our research have a concrete impact on society? We have seen initiatives of societal engagement literally mushrooming across YERUN institutions since the pandemic broke out and believe that this is as valuable as an online shift,” he says.

Sydney’s Brungs agrees that the “broader public good” of universities is crucial and says this provides another potential advantage for young universities.

“For many universities, particularly older universities, they know that they’ve existed for a couple of hundred years and this means that they must be good for society, ipso facto. Whereas as a young university, we’ve had to be much more concrete in demonstrating what role we play in supporting society,” he says.

Carr adds that in the absence of high funding levels, student “registration is the lifeblood of young universities”, and this is an area that has been growing at Concordia.

“Our enrolments have grown 11 per cent since 2013, so we’ve been probably the fastest-growing university in Quebec and also one of the fastest-growing in Canada. The pattern was already in place before Covid, and I’d like to believe that the way in which we’ve responded to the pandemic has only deepened that,” he says. “We know that our applicant pool for the year ahead is up by 15 per cent.”

Carr says that part of this growth could be down to the fact that students have fewer alternatives to studying at university, given travel restrictions and the challenging job market. But he believes that the volume of prospective Concordia students also “speaks to something else that’s happening in our case”.

“It speaks to the perception that cool things are happening at Concordia, in part because we are a young, innovative university.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Rolling with the punches

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