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Eight interventions for mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on higher education

  • 30 March 2020
  • By Chris Husbands and Natalie Day

This blog, the latest in our series about Covid-19, was kindly contributed by Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, and Natalie Day, Head of Policy and Strategy at Sheffield Hallam University, authors of HEPI Report 125 Making Universities Matter: How higher education can help to heal a divided Britain.

In 1941, the British government and its military leadership in Singapore believed that Singapore was well-equipped to withstand several months of Japanese siege. Powerful guns pointed south out to sea to defend the island. Famously, of course, the guns were useless. The Japanese assault down the Malaya peninsula came at the island from the north. Singapore was over-run and duly surrendered. The threat had come from an utterly unexpected direction.

All universities manage complex risk assessment and mitigation processes; almost none had ‘global pandemic’ high on their risk register. Over not much more than a fortnight, the sector has had to reshape its entire operating model. Any Vice-Chancellor who had said to his or her Board that the strategic plan involved a transition from face-to-face to online provision would have been met with quizzical questions; any Vice-Chancellor who said that this would be effected in a fortnight from a standing start would probably not have remained long in post. In fact, faced with an unexpected, almost existential challenge, the sector has transformed itself at extra-ordinary speed. Every university has transitioned from traditional face-to-face interaction to remote learning and working – every meeting, as one of our colleagues’ put it, like watching repeats of Celebrity Squares. The entire operation, covering teaching, research, professional services, student support and admissions, is now adapting to a remote delivery model. The scale and pace of work involved has been exceptional.

Equally exceptional has been the sector response to combating Covid-19. Research resources, clinical staff, IT resources – even those most highly contested of university resources, car parking spaces – have been placed at the disposal of this national emergency. But beyond the frenetic activity of the present, there are profound issues for us all.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents serious risks and challenges for the sector – some of them existential. At the most practical level, there are considerations around institutional operations, admissions, retention and progression and student support, particularly for those of disadvantaged backgrounds, that require innovative and agile responses. International student recruitment – an essential component for most universities’ sustainable operation – may never recover from the body blow of a global pandemic. Alongside this, broader institutional and financial instability threatens to weaken institutions that are central to the immediate response, ongoing research efforts, and future economic and social recovery. Just as we argued in our recent HEPI pamphlet, we believe that universities can and must be a key ally of government in helping the nation to grapple with challenges. A positive and proactive alliance is needed.

In this spirit, we set out a list of possible interventions which could mitigate some of the risks for the sector, minimise institutional damage and sustain higher education in the months and years ahead.

1. Suspend the market in undergraduate applications

We welcome early action by government to prevent poor behaviour on converting conditional to unconditional offers, but radical action is needed on university admissions for the foreseeable future. This means suspending the market in admissions which has been unrestricted since 2015, and, left as it is, will generate serious institutional instability. In effect, this means the re-imposition of student number controls to ensure that institutions have a viable first year student population. Realistically, given the damage to school students’ education and examination preparation, this will not be a one-year exercise. There are a number of ways this could happen, either by setting institution by institution limits on admissions (as was the case until 2011) or by limiting variance to +/-5 per cent for any institution against a three year average of admissions (from 2017 to 2019 inclusively). In the longer term, there should be a fundamental review of the operation of the market.

2. Address the impact of Covid-19 on retention and progression rates

Considerable attention has been paid to admissions. But one of the most significant risks arising from Covid-19 is the potential impact on progression and retention rates. With a prolonged absence from more traditional support, many students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are likely to experience a dent in confidence and disconnection from learning, despite the best intentions of universities. Some will leave their studies. These students would then be further disadvantaged as they enter a difficult economic environment, post-crisis, without the skills and educational experience to reach their potential and contribute to economic rebuilding, but, inevitably, carrying large levels of student debt. This is a national and social justice challenge.

We suggest incentivising students to return, as some ‘recognition’ of lost opportunities in this academic year due to the virus and to provide some financial reassurance for universities. Government should offer a £10,000 cash transfer to all returning students. Half of this allocation would be provided as one-year fee reduction for 2020/21, thereby reducing the fee loan requirement to £4,250. The remaining £5,000 would be provided as an incentive/maintenance payment, to help them readjust to study. Payment of the latter would be in instalments to ensure that students did not take the cash and not return to study.

3. Move immediately to announce rent support for students

Government has, rightly, intervened in the economy to prevent widespread economic distress. One major challenge for our sector is the fact that 70 per cent of student accommodation is by third party providers, a mix of large commercial providers and small private landlords. Some students will be locked into full-year residential contracts and our own inboxes suggest this is causing serious financial anxiety for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, while landlords are also worried about cash flow. The protection scheme for wages and the self-employed should be extended to student landlords, paying 80 per cent of rent for the remainder of this year.

4. Develop a fair and appropriate model for contextual admissions

The suspension of the market set out above will pose a serious threat to widening participation, which has been a success in the last few years. We propose the introduction of a new model for contextual admissions for 2021/22, in recognition of the need to consider a range of factors including course work, exam results and personal circumstances as part of the admission process. Students applying for 2021 (and, indeed 2022 and 2023) admission will have had serious learning disruption. A radical contextual admissions approach could kill off for once and all arguments about unconditional offers.

5. Abandon the National Student Survey (NSS) for 2020

The NSS has been a major driver of improvement in the sector and has been invaluable in the Teaching Excellence Survey. But the 2020 survey will be distorted in unprecedented circumstances. The negative impact of the survey on institutional rankings and international perceptions will damage the sector. Abandon the 2020 NSS. There may be a case for a smaller, tailored survey for 2021, to capture students’ views and experiences, and inform what is likely to be a transformed sector going forward.

6. Stabilise the research base as funding will have been interrupted and deliverables lost

We suggest an increase of 25 per cent in quality-related research for 2020/21, reducing to 10 per cent in 2021/2 and then 5 per cent in 2022/23. This would give confidence to the sector by effectively devolving greater budgetary discretion to institutions to identify and support areas of greatest priority in their research base. It would also provide further security to research intensive institutions who are more negatively affected by a deflated international student market. We realise efforts are also underway across government and UKRI to protect researchers on fixed-term contracts. Clarifying what measures will be in place to safeguard these jobs, and extend the duration of funding where necessary, will be of critical importance.

7. Establish a Digital Learning Leadership Fund

Institutions have transitioned at speed to remote learning, though few, two weeks ago would have argued they were well set up to do so effectively. There is now momentum for online provision. To build on this, to capture the lessons from this rapid transition and to encourage more innovative and sector-leading approaches to a high-quality digital learning environment we suggest the creation of a digital learning leadership fund of £500 million per annum to drive innovation and collaboration across what will be a new sector. This could position the UK as a global leader in the field.

8. Higher education as a public good

The speed of institutional responses to the Covid-19 epidemic is a reminder of something profound: for all their contribution to students’ individual life chances and – if anyone remembers it after the past two weeks – LEO data, universities are a public good. We have experienced a generation in which universities have become increasingly independent and autarchic institutions. It turns out that at a moment of crisis, that is not what we want or need: we need a sector, not a clutch of institutions. Beyond the crisis, we need a different way to think about universities, as inter-dependent institutions, working together for the common good. That will demand a fundamental policy, funding and cultural reset.

Universities in the UK are global leaders. The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of having solidly rooted institutions which can, at speed, respond to national crisis. As we emerge from the pandemic, there is a once-in-a-century opportunity to re-think the sector with a stronger focus on public good and social return and to reshape institutions to work effectively for all.


  1. Excellent and just what was needed ..some , bold and imaginative blue sky thinking.. well done. Let’s hope that the powers that be read understand znd take some action on what you have written.

  2. Michael Mcguire says:

    It’s time the NSS was used properly. Let it collate some real data for a change.

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