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Steve Smith: Options for higher education in 2020/21 – how choices might change

  • 13 July 2020
  • By Steve Smith

This blog is an edited transcript of a speech delivered to last week’s Festival of Higher Education by Sir Steve Smith, the Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Exeter – and the new International Education Champion.

May I start by offering my sincere congratulations to Sir Anthony for bringing together such an interesting and diverse set of speakers for this Festival. Can I also offer my personal best wishes to Anthony as he moves from his position at Buckingham; he and I have had our disagreements over the last few years but he has always struck me as someone motivated by a concern for students, their education and their health. I am certain that he will continue to be a prominent voice in our national debate about education. So, thanks for inviting me, Anthony, thanks for all those disagreements, and all the very very best for your future.

My comments today tackle the question of what education in our universities will look like over the course of the next year and what students can expect. It goes without saying that universities face a number of challenges. The one thing we know about this pandemic is that the longer term effects are far from certain. And it goes without saying that this is as true for universities as society as a whole.

My central message today is, whatever the future holds for the world, I am certain that education will retain its importance and its value for humanity moving forward. For many of our young people and all our prospective students, I truly believe that continuing with their education plans really is the best option for next year. In recent months, all of our lives have been affected in one way or another by COVID-19, and it is at such times of crisis that the importance of education becomes even clearer. Education transforms lives and I am certain that, whatever form it takes in our COVID-19 world, that axiom will remain true.

But it is equally certain that the higher education system that emerges will not be the same as before, and I believe, will never be the same again. This global crisis has required everyone to adapt to new ways of working and whilst universities are unwavering in their commitment to provide world-class education and research, the way in which we operate is likely to be fundamentally different – not just for next year but for the foreseeable future.

The last few months have certainly been like no other period in my 44 years as a university academic and administrator. But what has been astounding in the UK is the way in which our academic and professional staff, and our students, have adapted to these changed circumstances. Therefore whatever the future throws at us, I have confidence that the UK’s universities have the ability to adapt to, and thrive in, the new post-Covid world.

Next year – why go?

The immediate challenge for universities is of course to convince students that now is a good time to go to university. As in any other year, going to university improves life chances, employability, and graduate earnings over a lifetime. This autumn will be no different from any other in that respect – but universities fully recognise that those intending to go will want additional information and reassurance about what the autumn will look like – and that’s what we’re doing.

From the latest UCAS data, which I know Clare Marchant touched upon earlier today, deadline data shows a somewhat unexpected, but very encouraging, increase in undergraduate applicants accepting offers to start in 2020 and a decrease in held deferrals. Compared to last year, the overall number of undergraduate applicants accepting offers to study in 2020 has increased by 1% (+5,810 applicants). This increase has been driven by higher UK and non-EU international applications, which are up 1% (+2,200 applicants) and 12% (+5,770 applicants) respectively. EU numbers are currently down 6% (-2,160 applicants), which coincides with a fall in EU applications at the 15 January deadline.

And the number of UK 18-year-old applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 quintile 1) holding offers for an immediate start has increased 4% (+1,110 applicants) – a higher proportional change than other quintiles. This is especially encouraging.

Equally encouraging is that there are also 1% (160) fewer applicants choosing to accept deferred offers this year. UK 18-year-old applicants from the most disadvantaged areas are the only group with increases in deferred offers held (up 60 applicants).

So overall this paints a promising picture for next year for university admissions, although, of course, we can take nothing for granted at this stage in this devastating pandemic. We know that students are rightly nervous and concerned about making the right choice.

Universities, and of course students and their schools, will be watching carefully what happens with exam results this year. We have known for many years that grades have a tendency to be over-predicted, and that under-prediction disproportionately affects students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We will all be closely monitoring this in the current admissions cycle, but universities are determined to ensure as smooth a transition into higher education as is possible for everyone who has the aspiration and the requisite attainment to do so.

In terms of the longer term future of our current admissions process, clearly there is much speculation that we may move to a post-qualification admissions system. And whilst this may look attractive, we have to remember that UCAS data currently shows that students who apply for the first time in clearing (with results) are significantly more likely not to enrol or drop out. Therefore we need to think about any unintended consequences and take time to work out the best system for the future. Whilst I think that the status quo is not an option in the longer term, it is worth looking at alternatives to PQA, such as post qualification offers or post-qualification decisions to allow sufficient time for support and guidance.

But putting the uncertainties of this year’s process to one side, going to university remains an excellent choice this autumn. We shouldn’t let COVID-19 stop students starting their HE journey and getting on with their lives – universities are preparing for innovative and engaging ways to deliver teaching, learning, support and social activities this autumn, and all the while students will be building skills, knowledge, experience and networks which will help them when they graduate in three to four years’ time. Crucially, we must avoid a situation where we permanently lose a cohort to the transformative potential of higher education.

My advice to students is therefore: take your time to consider your options based on the information your university sets out, ask questions and take part in any opportunities to talk to university staff and students through virtual tours, Q&As, Facebook lives events, and so on. To the students considering deferring: your excitement and enthusiasm to start your studies in the autumn do not need to be dampened, because you can expect high-quality courses and a commitment from universities to deliver the same learning outcomes as well as social and educational connections. To think life will return the pre-COVID ‘normal’ in 2021 seems an unlikely prospect and so I would encourage prospective students to grasp the opportunity now as they would in any other year.

So what will university look like this autumn?

So what will university life look like in the autumn? No one knows what is likely to happen over the coming months – whether we might face a second wave, or if some parts of the UK may be affected while others are not. Therefore UK universities are planning for a range of scenarios which enable them to be flexible and agile in responding to what happens next.

Universities are looking at how they can reintroduce the elements of a course which need a more individual approach – such as music, performance-based subjects, lab work – adjusted for physical distancing for the health and safety of staff and students and with appropriate hygiene and cleaning measures and equipment. It might be such one-to-one sessions are more limited to start with, but universities are introducing the flexibility to dial up and down in response to the public health situation as it evolves over the year.

And the vast majority of UK universities are preparing to provide in-person teaching this autumn, a recent survey from Universities UK has revealed.

97% of universities surveyed confirmed that they will provide in-person teaching at the start of term this year, with 87% also stating that they will offer in-person social opportunities to students, including outside events and sporting activities, all in line with government and public health guidance.

Across the UK, the survey found that;

  • 87% of universities are planning to provide in-person sporting, fitness and wellbeing activities for students in autumn 2020;
  • The full range of student support will be on offer at UK universities – including mental health support; careers advice; study skills. 95% of universities will deliver this using a mixture of online and in-person services and 5% are planning to deliver these services online;
  • Universities across the UK are consulting with staff and students as they develop their plans; and
  • 90% universities have communicated their current plans to prospective and current students; others will be doing so imminently.

And whilst student surveys state how much students like formal contact time, attendance rates at large group contact events tend to drop over time, especially when the lectures are recorded and can be accessed on ‘catch-up’. Pedagogic literature demonstrates the value of supported independent learning and the improved accessibility of asynchronous models of learning.

What is Exeter doing: an illustrative case study

At Exeter, we are rapidly seeking to ‘Enhance’ our programmes – not simply shore them up. Whilst the safety and wellbeing of all our students and staff is our highest priority, we are of course also fully committed to providing our students with the highest quality study and social experience that we can. We have invested over £8.5m in moving our teaching resources online, and have appointed 160 of our graduates to help us prepare our teaching materials for online. We have made a commitment to all our students that, through our blended learning provision, they will be able to receive face-to-face teaching on campus whenever it is safe and possible, and live teaching delivered digitally to the students on campus will continue to be available at other times.  We know that access to our academics is important to our students and we are planning to provide regular contact time with teachers and fellow course mates through dynamic learning and smaller groups. Current students have told us that they really value these learning environments. And the greater focus on use of digital technologies – and this will unarguably prepare students for the future workplace.

We know that some students have concerns about online delivery of learning. But providing online alternatives to lectures does not mean that students will miss out on the in-person university experience. On lectures, there has been a lot of press coverage about ‘cancelled lectures’ but this only tells half the story. At Exeter, large lectures will be delivered digitally if necessary and we will make sure these are accessible to all by recording or streaming them. The sort of lectures that are focused on systematic coverage of subject-matter are arguably better suited to the new approach to delivery that we are developing. In many cases, this sees the same expert academics breaking up those lectures into shorter sections on video and structuring these with prompts and questions. The live teaching sessions will give students the chance to follow up and ask about the parts they find most difficult and they will be able to post questions online in discussion spaces where our academics will post answers and explanations.

More practically, we will provide all students with free face coverings and a thermometer; there will be hand sanitiser available all around our campuses; and our university buildings will have stringent regular cleaning in place. For our international students, we will look after them from the moment they arrive in the UK, with collection from the airport; and free accommodation and support in specially-designated halls of residence for any students who need to self-isolate for two weeks – if still required by the government. We are also fortunate to be working closely with NHS health providers in our region to develop testing and tracing services, with an aim to have every student tested both for antigens and antibodies on arrival.

So, looking at the incredible efforts across the sector, I am confident that UK universities are able to offer a safe, secure and educationally compelling option to students starting, or returning, to university this autumn.

International Students

And this includes international students coming to the UK; and if I may, I would like to take some time to look at international students and their choices for next year. In recent years, UK higher education was showing positive signs of recovering its position in international student recruitment prior to C19. I have recently been appointed International Education Champion by the UK Government and I passionately believe that UK higher education continues to be one of the very best higher education systems in the world. Part of my role will be to attract international students to the UK, particularly at this critical time when Covid-19 presents higher education across the world with many challenges.

What is clear, as we look at the situation today, is that the pandemic crisis will have a profound impact on global student mobility – but there will be opportunities for those countries that can respond quickly and effectively to student concerns and demonstrate that they can provide a world class education in a safe and secure environment.

The UK is and remains open and welcoming to international students and we are working hard to ensure that students know this and feel comfortable with continuing with their plans. The government’s introduction of the Graduate Route for post study work and the positive changes to the visa and immigration regime during the pandemic demonstrate a clear willingness to work with the sector.

But understandably, many potential students remain undecided – and so UK universities and the government all need to ensure that their concerns are understood and addressed. We absolutely have to listen. Across the sector, as already mentioned, institutions are working to provide clear, coordinated messaging to students around their safety and wellbeing, around the quality of student and experience and – critically for international students – that the threat of racism and discrimination are taken very seriously and will not be tolerated.

Before Covid, the UK was the second most popular destination for international students, behind only the US. In 2018-19 there were around 485,000 international students studying in the UK (342,620 from outside the EU). The top five sending countries outside the EU were China, India, the US, Hong Kong and Malaysia (2017-18 data).

However, while international student numbers in the UK increased by 5% between 2011/12 and 2017/18, the USA and Australia saw increases of 28% and 73% over the equivalent time period. Further, since 2010, analysis of international student destinations from the top 21 sources of globally mobile students shows that the UK has lost overall market position in 13 markets and has lost market share in 18 markets.

So, while the UK remains a global leader in international higher education, our market position has been a little eroded in recent years. The government is now making strenuous efforts to reverse this trend. Publication of the cross-Whitehall International Education Strategy in March 2019 set an ambition to grow onshore recruitment numbers to 600,000 per annum by 2030, and to significantly grow international education exports to £35 billion per annum.

These ambitions were matched by commitments to create a more competitive international offer – the most obvious result being the reintroduction, from next year, of a new post-study work offer, known now as the Graduate Route, which will see international students able to remain in the UK for up to 2 years after the end of their studies; and this has recently been extended to 3 years for PhD students.

These announcements, plus the wider global context had already begun to have an impact: to the year ending September 2019 there was a 14% increase from the same point in 2018. Notably, applicants from India have increased very substantially, by over 300% at Exeter.

At this point, it is worth reflecting briefly on the immense value of international students to universities across the world. These students enrich the social, cultural and academic life of our institutions. But they also play a critical role in supporting the sustainability of our institutions and in communities.

Many courses – particularly at postgraduate level – require the critical mass provided by global talent to be viable, providing opportunities for British students that would not be possible without international students. And the economic impact is huge – around £6.9 billion in fee income which helps underpin the UK’s internationally-renowned research base, and a total economic contribution of more than £25 billion to the UK economy.

Evidence and analysis from throughout the pandemic crisis suggests that COVID 19 is set to have a potentially seismic impact on international student mobility – but that this may be relatively short term. Yet even short term effects at scale will present huge challenges for higher education sectors that have come to place a significant emphasis on international student recruitment.

Ongoing research by QS suggests that an increasing proportion of students are changing their study plans with 53% of respondents stating that the coronavirus has impacted their plans to study abroad (up from 27% in February). However, a key finding of this research was that “international students may be deferred but they’re not deterred”, with almost half of those who say their plans have changed indicating that they now intend to delay or defer their entry to next year.

And research by the British Council with students from eight key East Asian markets (making up 52% of all new non-EU international students at UK institutions in 2018/19) found that there is significant uncertainty over future plans, with 29% indicating that they may delay or cancel plans, and a further 35% uncertain. Countries that are perceived to have done well during the pandemic are likely to be attractive destinations in the autumn.

What do we know about international demand in the UK?

Prior to COVID 19, many institutions were seeing healthy increases in applications from international students wishing to study in the UK. For undergraduate courses, as of 15 January 2020, UCAS has reported a record 73,080 applicants from outside the EU, 14.7% more than 2019 – driven by 33.8% and 32.9% increases in applicants from China and India respectively. EU applicants fell by 2% (-860). At this stage it is harder to gauge what is happening in the critical PGT markets nationally, where applications are generally handled directly by institutions. While institutions have reported increases in applications, there is a more mixed picture in firm acceptances and deposits being paid.

Looking at the situation now, evidence from the British Council suggests that UK universities could face nearly 14,000 fewer new enrolments from East Asia in 2020-2021 compared to the 2018-19 academic year, leading to a decline of £463 million in spending on tuition and living expenses. A number of surveys have pinpointed their concerns, including a survey of more than 9,000 prospective students from China (by the Association of British Chinese Professors), which found that 75% of prospective students were concerned about discrimination and hate speech against Chinese people in the UK; 59% were concerned about a lack of access to medical care when needed; and 51% worried about the availability of effective PPE. There was also a prevalence of negative perceptions of online or distance learning, with 59% of respondents saying that would consider three months of online provision but no more. Availability of air travel and quarantine requirements are also major considerations. These findings have been echoed in other surveys and provides us with a challenge to ensure students have confidence to travel to the UK.

This evidence suggests that while there is expected to be a significant COVID 19 impact on international student mobility, at this stage the precise impact is uncertain with a very significant proportion of students yet to make firm decisions either way, and the longer-term picture could be more positive, with the potential for recruitment to rebound – if the pandemic crisis can be brought under control, and the economic consequences are not too pervasive. In that sense the main question is whether COVID-19 is so significant an event as to disrupt the absolutely clear trend of increasing financial resources around the world leading to a continual increase in international student mobility.

Concluding comments

So in summary, we know that universities have more to do to engage with all prospective and current students, home and international, as we head towards the autumn. We need to thoroughly address concerns over health and safety on campus and to communicate clearly what will be put in place so that they can enjoy their learning experience while having confidence that they will be safe, welcome and able to realise their ambitions.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, whilst next year will be different, I have confidence that our universities will ensure that students will continue to be provided with an outstanding learning and overall experience. I truly believe that the value of education is becoming ever more important as economies move to become knowledge economies. So, out of all the options on the table, going to university continues to be a positive, life-changing decision.

Yet, I also believe that the higher education sector will never be the same again. Current trends that have seen a more differentiated and stratified sector emerge in recent years will accelerate and the past will not necessarily be an indication of what our future holds.

Let me conclude by making five brief points as to how I see this future developing in the coming years.

Firstly, to state what must be obvious, though its implications are not often obvious, I believe that blended learning provision is here to stay. There is no going back. We will not be returning to the long-standing ‘traditional’ ways of teaching and educating our students. Even if and when a full return to campus education is possible, the way that education is delivered will be fundamentally altered, with online provision, aided by advanced data analytics, making learning far more personalised than hitherto. Bluntly, we have made more changes in the way we deliver university education in the last four months than in the preceding decade.

Secondly, in the UK our sector has been differentiating for many years, and this divergence is going to accelerate in the coming years. All the signs are there, and we can expect far more change in the structure of the HE sector than we have had for the last thirty years. If we look at patterns in student recruitment, the movement of world-class researchers and flows of research funding, we can clearly discern a ‘flight to quality’ over recent years. This is a world-wide phenomenon. But equally, there is also a move to greater differentiation, with the UK HE sector far more diverse than ever, reflecting the needs of different types of learners. When the immediate impacts of Covid pass, I believe this trend will pick up apace. This has massive implications for social mobility, and it also requires institutions to know where they truly fit in this emerging and differentiating environment.

Thirdly, there will be increasing focus on measures such as graduate employability and the return for the taxpayer. In uncertain economic times, students and wider society will expect this. We have the clearest of steers in recent days of the growing importance of these measures. As the Post-COVID economy recovers, the public finances are going to be severely constrained, and thus a focus on the returns for the individual of the investment they make in their education, and the efficacy of the public spending on differing types of courses will both create a very different sector to the one we have today.

Fourthly, the significant demographic upturn in the UK will see demand for university places increase by 50,000 by 2030. The current demographic decline is currently grinding to a welcome halt and the 18 year old population will increase by nearly 23 per cent during the next decade to 2030. This is great news for universities, but for many politicians, the nature of the public finances means that the state may not be able to support 50% of these students going to university at the current cost per student, and not if we mean a residential student demand-led experience. However, rather than debate what is the right percentage for a country like the UK to send to university, the key is that as many of our population are educated and have the skills to prosper in the world of the future. Internationally, HolonIQ estimated in late 2019 that international students would grow from about 5m to 7m by 2030. So, we are set for a massive upturn in student numbers both domestically and internationally.

My final point, though, is for me the most important. I believe strongly that all the evidence shows that research and education are on a conveyor belt of internationalisation and this trend is accelerating. Education and the advancement of human knowledge through research are truly international in character – they cannot in the long run be contained by or restricted within national boundaries. Knowledge is international. We know that the most successful research with the greatest impact is increasingly internationally co-authored and is increasingly carried out by researchers collaborating in teams working across national boundaries. This is partly because the greatest challenges faced by the world will never be solved by lone scholars or even by academics working within individual universities or nations, but it also reflects the fact that education and research are irreducibly international activities. And I fervently believe that this pattern will continue to accelerate over the coming years, and this will set the context for the choices students of the future will make about how and where to access their education.

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