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Beyond the Pandemic: the role of universities in shaping a better future

  • 8 May 2020
  • By Giles Carden and Lawrence Young

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Giles A.F. Carden, Chief of Staff & Director of Strategic Projects, Lancaster University and Professor Lawrence S. Young, Pro-Dean of External Affairs, Warwick Medical School.

While the higher education sector considers the measures recently announced by the government to protect students and staff from the impact of coronavirus, there is still much uncertainty and considerable debate about the easing of the lockdown and its implications for universities. Whatever the uneasiness about the future we can expect varying degrees of social distancing until there is either widespread community virus testing and tracing or roll-out of a vaccine. Uncertainty will remain for some time to come, probably at least a year. This means universities are in the midst of scenario planning different futures so they can adapt and forge an effective strategic response, keep staff and students healthy, maintain quality, standards and reputation, and ensure they are financially sustainable. We discuss some possible options as to how the sector might respond to the crisis.

The lockdown has frozen vast swathes of the economy and the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility have provided differing estimates of the possible shrinkage in GDP but what is clear is that it will be unprecedented and severe. Universities have traditionally been seen as a safe haven during severe recessions with individuals that have access to finance choosing to invest in their education rather than face unemployment. We may in due course see an uptick in domestic and international student numbers. However, this is unlikely to be the case in the coming year. Uncertainty over the future path of the pandemic means that social distancing, travel restrictions and even a possible further wave of infection may compel students to defer their studies. Indeed, surveys of overseas applicants conducted by QS and the British Council suggest that a considerable number are already contemplating deferring studies or are undecided as to what to do. This may result in a significant dip in numbers in 2020/21 and an increase in numbers in future years, accelerated by an upshift in the number of 18-21 year-olds in the UK. It is also likely that students who defer and those intending to enrol from 2021/22 will face stiff competition to gain a place at top-rated institutions.

The impact of the global pandemic has often been compared to the world wars, an analogy that has some merit. John Taylor has written about how the First World War permanently changed universities and how they contributed to the war effort via developments in anaesthesia, antiseptics and the treatment of disease and through working with industry to develop tanks, aircraft and submarines. All of this resulted in the acknowledgement that higher education was crucial for rebuilding the economy and that this was dependent on a close relationship between universities and industry. Universities have already made a significant positive response to the pandemic and individuals from across academia have demonstrated their value to society in times of crisis. Despite the uncertain future we are all facing globally, there is the potential for the sector to significantly further enhance its contribution.

The coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly brought into sharp focus how important healthcare is to society. This presents a potential opportunity for universities justifying an expansion not just in medical school student numbers but places on allied health professional and public health programmes. It also raises the important issue of how universities respond to the need for inter-professional training between healthcare professionals and for building multidisciplinary resilience across diverse areas that impact public health, policy and economics. But we also need to recognise that a deep recession will present immense challenges for students about to graduate and enter the labour market. Universities have a moral obligation to help these students despite the inevitable and unprecedented financial pressures they are facing. They should consider boosting resources in careers’ centres, supporting opportunities for work placements and internships, and their responsibility for skills development even beyond g on raduation.

Never in our careers have we seen our own institutions move so swiftly as they have over the past few months. The decision to move teaching online is a stark illustration of this and has accelerated other elements of higher education’s digital strategies such as facilitating innovative interdisciplinary research and improving the efficiency of management and administrative activities. We hope that universities now recognise that this more agile approach to decision making will enable them to swiftly adapt and change in the difficult years that may lie ahead.

Prior to the pandemic the Government had already loosened its fiscal rules and promised an unprecedented increase in investment in research and development over the coming years. Despite the considerable financial pressures that the country will face, we believe the Government will largely stick to this commitment as it will act as a stimulus to the economy but it is likely that the focus of this investment will change because of the pandemic. The crisis we are facing has revealed a number of areas of weakness in the country in terms of its preparedness for a healthcare crisis, for example the ability of the public health system to roll out effective testing. We believe fields of research under the umbrella of ‘health security’ will be important growth areas such as virology, diagnostics, pharma, medical engineering and public health. We furthermore expect not just science, medicine and engineering to be beneficiaries, social science research has an enormously important role to play too. Areas such as logistics, operational research, and health economics will be of critical importance as we make moves to improve our public health system. And that’s not to forget the areas of cyber defence and security where future investment in research and training is vital to protect against malicious attacks such as have already been evident during the current pandemic. Alongside all this, there is the wider contribution of universities to civil society and their key role in promoting the contribution of arts and humanities in areas such as ethics, governance, communication and well-being.

The national response of the sector to date is something of which we should be justly proud. We see “the expert” as being integral to helping shape the Government’s response and higher education continuing with lighting-speed research into new vaccines, trials of therapies, the design of new ventilators and manufacturing of personal protective equipment. But the sector has so much more to offer over the coming years by playing a key role in driving the economic recovery and rebuilding the country. As we learn from the successes and failures of the national and global response to the pandemic, universities will be integral to shaping a brighter future for us all.

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