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Universities will be changed forever by the Coronavirus crisis – and its aftermath

  • 23 March 2020
  • By Anthony Seldon

This blog has been written for HEPI by Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

Universities will be changed forever by the Coronavirus crisis and its aftermath. A welcome harbinger has been a greater sense of unity and collective mission among universities than at any point in recent – sometimes – difficult years, and indeed for years before. Universities UK has emerged as a strong sector leader, with the voice of Alistair Jarvis clearly articulating the HE sector’s interest – and contribution – to government and across the media.

The Office for Students (OfS), too often shrill and abrasive, has become notably more emollient. Expect it to be more flexible and empathetic after the crisis. All universities are going to suffer in the crisis. To look after students means looking after the universities, all universities, who educate them, now more than ever. A benign OfS is vital. Because what none of us knows is how deeply Coronavirus will affect us, and whether all universities will be able to survive, at least as independent institutions.

Here are five proposals for the university sector over the next year.

First, universities need to lay competition aside and support each other through the crisis. Universities have to be more collegiate, at least until it is over, and stability returns. It was inevitable and probably right that the student number cap came off, though it happened too quickly, and stories about no accommodation for first-year students in already large universities, insufficient lecture halls and teaching space and payments offered to prospective students to defer for a year, even if exaggerated, have done nothing for the image of a sector already in question in the public eye. It is wrong to let the expander universities gobble up even more students this September, rather than them going to other universities where they might get as good or even better quality of education and pastoral care.

The counter arguments, that even a temporary return of the cap places unwarranted restrictions on applicants’ freedom of choice, or that any universities that might go under deserve their fate, are short term and damaging. Some universities are undoubtedly becoming too big. There is an optimum size, as Oxford and Cambridge and other top universities in the US and beyond know, and some of our large universities have already exceeded it. Blithely letting some universities go to the wall is irresponsible, when many of those most under threat are the beating hearts of troubled communities high in deprivation and cultural capital, and low in employment and school achievement. Partnerships between strong and challenged universities should now be blossoming. The very diversity of our HE sector is at risk.

Secondly, unify still more under UUK. I have long argued that the lack of a unified strong voice in the past has held the sector back from punching its weight with the government and in the media. There is nothing like a crisis to remind divergent voices of a common sense of purpose, and to bring about enduring change. Universities have shown the country in the crisis that the research they undertake, the medical professionals they educate and the communal support they provide, are at the core of getting the country through. They are lending equipment, facilities and expertise to the national effort and local communities, opening bioscience labs for Coronavirus testing and letting their Chemistry labs be used to make hand sanitiser. UUK has far-reaching plans, including support for the vulnerable in local communities and meeting key skills gaps, to extend the ways that universities can help still further.

An unintended consequence of the crisis is that universities could emerge with their public reputation restored. Vice-chancellors have a responsibility to rally around UUK’s lead, to support UUK’s actions in public, and in private to ensure it has the resources it needs to co-ordinate sector-wide efforts. We need a strong robust UUK if we are to be high-profile after it is over, to sort out any concerns that arise expeditiously, to devise new industry standards – for example, on teaching quality, and set the agenda nationally, rather than going back to the world where the OfS and others called the shots.

Third, widening our educational vision. Universities are there to educate the whole student, not just their heads. The post Coronavirus economy and society will need far more rounded people than turned out by schools still locked into a twentieth-century factory mentality of exams as all-important. Universities can set the agenda in asserting that education goes far beyond income earning potential, as Julia Buckingham has already bravely argued. UUK has led the national debate on mental health under John de Pury and Steve West. We need to go further and embrace positive psychology, which builds the capacity of students and staff to thrive, and to come through adversity on top.

Fourth, we need to build on the opportunities that the crisis has provided to show that every university is a Civic University. Many vice-chancellors, like Stuart Croft at Warwick, have blazed the trail, as have both Nottingham universities joining together to work in the city. Nick Hillman believes ‘should the crisis decimate some other institutions in local communities, the civic role of universities will become more vital than ever’.

Finally, and most softly, we need to ask if this is the time to consider vice-chancellor pay. It remains a sore, as we have seen in the recent university strikes. If this isn’t the moment for vice-chancellors to rise up and say ‘we have been paid too much and it is out of step’, when will be? It clearly is not right for some vice-chancellors to be paid three times more than the very cabinet ministers, the permanent secretaries running great Whitehall departments and the officials whose expert guidance is steering the country to safety. What could be done? An agreement to freeze pay increases for the next two years might be a start. I write this not because I don’t rate my fellow VCs as astonishing professionals. I write it because I do rate them as that, and this ongoing sore has to be healed. 

The crisis will test our universities and their leadership to the hilt. We mustn’t waste this opportunity. The prize is coming out of it with more moral authority, popular respect and national leadership than ever before. I am confident that the opportunity will not go to waste.


  1. “Universities are there to educate the whole student, not just their heads. The post Coronavirus economy and society will need far more rounded people than turned out by schools still locked into a twentieth-century factory mentality of exams as all-important.” I couldn’t agree more.

    In 2018, I published a little blogpost, ‘Please sir, do not belittle teachers; esteem them – 2018 Edition.’ In that blog, I addressed an entirely different situation regarding education in Africa, in which I said more or less the same thing. The blog is as relevant today as it was back in 2018 – in no small part thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. I wrote thus: “The chief object of teaching is not only to train up a pupil to attain the highest possible examination result, but also to equip a pupil with the critical skills necessary to climb the steep of life’s challenges. It is essential we teach our children critical problem solving skills, compassion or emotional intelligence, and interpersonal communication skills. Global events, especially in places such as Syria, in the Middle East, show that we live in dangerous times; it is all the more reason why we should do all we can to equip the next generation, with all possible skills necessary to navigate their way if they are to have any hope of surviving, both at home and abroad.”

  2. Rockhill Focho says:

    I think another issue which this crisis perhaps would highlight is the need to revamp the fundamental structure and design of university programmes, as well as the strategic orientation of university focus. The former refers not only to the increasing need for the internalisation of programmes but also the usefulness in developing remote delivery mechanisms.
    The latter refers to the need for universities to incorporate business-focus acumen in their strategic vision.

  3. Carl says:

    Regarding the claim that “there is an optimum size, as Oxford and Cambridge and other top universities in the US and beyond know, and some of our large universities have already exceeded it,” let’s look at the numbers (most recent figures from HESA for the UK and IPEDS for the US). After the Open University, UCL and Manchester had the largest enrollments in 2018-19.

    UCL — 41,180 students
    Manchester — 40,250
    Oxford — 25,390
    Cambridge — 20,890

    So apparently 40,000 is too large, but 25,000 isn’t. Let’s compare the most highly ranked public universities in the US according to QS with a representative sample of Ivy League universities (Fall 2018):

    Michigan — 46,716 students
    Berkeley — 42,501
    Harvard — 31.566
    Princeton — 8,374

    So by Dr. Seldon’s reasoning, Michigan and Berkeley are too large to maintain their quality? I think not. UCL and Manchester aren’t exactly weak institutions either; setting aside all the problems with rankings, QS places UCL at 8th and Princeton at 13th. It’s also worth noting that Harvard has the largest endowment in the world, and Princeton the largest per capita. Shouldn’t other factors besides size be considered in making these casual comparisons?

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