This guest blog has been provided by Dr Gary Gates, Senior Vice President of Pearson – UK Higher Education and Pearson VUE. Pearson is the world’s learning company providing content, assessment and digital online services to learners, educational institutions, employers, governments and other partners globally.
This week Pearson released its second annual Global Learner Survey, capturing the voices of over 7,000 people worldwide from seven countries (including 1,000 respondents from the UK). The Survey gives learners the opportunity to voice their opinions on:
- primary, secondary and higher education;
- careers and the future of work; and
Conducted in June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we questioned whether the enforced move to online learning would act as a catalyst to a long-term shift to hybrid or online delivery. The data suggest, both globally and within the UK, that education is forever changed. It also brings up some interesting questions on the future of the higher education sector in this increasingly digital environment and disrupted economy.
Six trends COVID-19 has accelerated for higher education providers
1. Online learning is here to stay: More than three-quarters of learners around the world agree education will fundamentally change because of the pandemic and 86% of UK respondents believe online learning will be part of the higher education experience moving forward.
Despite well-publicised frustrations with online learning at the start of the pandemic, learners now see it as a permanent fixture in education. And if it’s here to stay, they want it to be better.
In addition, 64% of UK respondents believe education institutions are less effective at using technology than other industries (such as healthcare or banking). Our experience of working with higher education providers suggests the use of technology is not ineffective, but rather very inconsistent. There are pockets of technological innovation all over the sector but it rarely permeates a whole institution. Now this unique situation could enable all areas across a provider to fast forward their strategy.
2. Pressure to move at pace while maintaining quality: 88% of learners agree that providers need to adapt faster to the needs of today’s students.
In moving teaching online in a matter of weeks, providers have shown they can adapt quickly when necessary. As for moving at pace to high-quality blended delivery, that is proving more challenging: 84% of UK respondents agree that students can still have a good higher education experience if some classes are held in person and some are held online, suggesting that they remain open minded about blended delivery.
That optimism will not last unless students are given a high-quality learning experience in the autumn and supported with a clear transition plan that sets out what is expected of them.
Those who believe the hybrid model will peter out once COVID-19 has loosened its grip may be surprised to hear that 77% of UK respondents believe more college / university students will attend school online versus attending a traditional school within ten years (versus 68% last year). Almost 10 years ago, many thought that Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, would have a significant impact on the market for traditional degrees but the shift to online courses didn’t happen at the expected rate. I’d argue that the pandemic has ‘normalised’ online learning and online communication to such an extent that the change predicted by survey respondents is possible, but only if the shorter-term blended experience of learners is positive.
3. Demand for shorter courses and lower cost options: 84% of UK respondents think colleges and universities need to do more to help retrain or re-skill unemployed workers and 87% believe colleges and universities should offer shorter courses or lower cost options to help those who are unemployed.
The Survey results imply there is an opportunity for higher education providers in supporting the recovery of our economy. Learners still see higher education as a major driver of personal progress, and many believe providers have an opportunity to help people get back to work and become more economically resilient. Just over half of UK respondents say the COVID-19 pandemic has made them rethink their career path. Over three-quarters (77%) of respondents believe colleges and universities focus too much on young students and should offer better options for working adults (up from 74% last year). In response to this, I suspect many universities would argue that they have been pushed into focusing on younger students because of the huge decline in part-time learners, many of whom are mature students. Since 2010, primarily linked to funding reforms and increased tuition fees, part-time learners have decreased by 70%. If universities are to play a key role in reskilling the nation, they will need the funding support in place to do it.
4. Staying within reach of learners: 61% of UK respondents (53% globally) said that higher education is getting more out of reach for the average person, a rise of 9% from 52% in 2019 (50% globally).
This is being driven primarily by unemployment, recession and COVID-19. 77% of UK respondents say fewer people will be able to afford a university education as a result of the pandemic. However, if student numbers follow the pattern of the 2008/09 recession then UK universities are likely to see an uplift in numbers rather than the reduction implied in the Survey results. Whether they can afford it or not, students may feel they have limited choice given the low employment prospects. Linked to point 3 above, if higher education providers are to diversify the types of course they offer, thereby reducing the money and time commitment needed from learners, the necessary central funding support will need to be put in place.
5. Traditional degrees valued more in China and India than in the UK and US: just 22% of respondents in China and India think that you can do okay in life without a university degree compared with 60% of UK respondents, up from 57% last year.
The Survey suggests markets like China, India and Brazil still value traditional degrees whereas people in the UK and US increasingly believe you can achieve success without one. Eight-in-10 (82%) UK respondents think fewer people will go overseas for their studies as a result of the pandemic (compared with 89% in China and 79% in India). It’s hard to predict to what extent the response to this question is based on immediate fears around international travel as respondents were at various stages of lockdown when they responded. However, even if the response is a short-term one, the combination of limited international travel and the continued desire for a traditional degree suggests online delivery could become an increasingly important way to retain international students.
6. Higher education in the UK continues to be valued: 69% of UK respondents believe their higher education system compared to other countries is great or good (compared to 68% last year).
Overall, trust and confidence in education systems around the world is high. In turbulent times, people look to the things that instil hope and opportunity. Education does just that. This year, more people than ever give their own country’s education system high marks for quality (59% say they trust the education system in their country provides quality education to all its people versus 54% last year).
This pandemic undoubtedly continues to pose huge challenges to the higher education sector, but this Survey suggests learners are optimistic about online learning and its role in the future. Providers who invest time and money now in transforming their digital strategy and responding to the need for wider upskilling throughout the country, could create a long-term competitive advantage.
To view the full findings of the Global Learner Survey visit: go.pearson.com/global-learner-survey.