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The Future of Higher Education After COVID – by Nick Hillman

  • 16 October 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

When asked to expound on the full impact of COVID on higher education, I am tempted to say – like the supposed comment about the French Revolution – that ‘It is too early to say.’

But that has not stopped others from guessing. If you Google it, you will find lots of articles which reveal with great certainty how everything will be different after the current crisis is over.

A piece in University World News claims the crisis will lead to a new type of institution called the ‘new global university’ or NGU. We are told this:

is an open access establishment influenced and enriched by the cultural and intellectual import of its community across distances and locations. It is a structure neither constrained by place nor by parochial insignias of governments and states. Faculty can apply to join the NGU from all regions of the planet and must have at their disposal the best means and methods to serve and empower communities of students and scholars worldwide.

Similarly, the World Economic Forum has published a piece that claims ‘COVID-19 is driving a long-overdue revolution in education’ and which foretells ‘a new educational paradigm’.

COVID-19 is causing us to challenge deep-rooted notions of when, where, and how we deliver education, of the role of colleges and universities, the importance of lifelong learning, and the distinction we draw between traditional and non-traditional learners. … COVID-19 has struck our education system like a lightning bolt and shaken it to its core. Just as the First Industrial Revolution forged today’s system of education, we can expect a different kind of educational model to emerge from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the New Statesman has claimed:

A further positive impact of the present pandemic on higher education is the sudden embracing of online conferences and teaching technology. … The consequences of this are potentially enormous. People all over the world can learn and teach to huge audiences at close to zero marginal cost. This will revolutionise the delivery of higher education and research.

Such pieces are different from one another but they all have one thing in common: they are exceptionally vague about what the brave new world actually looks like. (The HEPI Style Guide suggests authors steer clear of terms like ‘paradigm’ as they can ‘reveal flabby thinking and conceal a clear line of argument.’)

Such forecasts are also strikingly unoriginal. Technological innovations and wider societal changes are always predicted to deliver rapid and transformational change in higher education. Back in the 1920s, Thomas Edison said motion pictures would replace campus lectures. The radio, the compact cassette and video tapes were also all once predicted to transform higher-level learning beyond all recognition.

Such innovations have all had their place in making teaching and learning better and universities today look and feel very different places to how they were a few decades ago. Yet at the same time, much about them remains recognisable and the changes they have undergone have typically been more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Today’s first-year students are having a rather different experience to my own first year 30 years ago, thanks in large part to the pandemic. But assuming the pandemic is not still governing our lives in three years’ time, their final year is likely to have more in common with the experience of my own cohort a generation-and-a-half ago than with some of the wilder visions of the future (whether they date from the early twentieth century or the early twenty-first century).


Before looking at what changes may actually occur, we should also note three caveats.

We should recognise that COVID is not the only big change affecting higher education at the moment: if it hadn’t happened, we would be talking endlessly about Brexit, the transition period and future trade agreements (not to mention the response to the Augar report, the still unpublished Pearce review of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the spending review). As a result, once COVID and Brexit have had their full effect, it might not always be easy to disentangle the impact of one from the other. If, for example, fewer international students were to come to the UK in future, would that be down to the pandemic or Brexit or something else entirely?

A second important caveat is that it is wrong to assume, as many people do, that the higher education sector is always conservative and slow. Since March, we have seen some rapid changes but my point is a more general one: in the past five years alone, huge changes have washed over higher education institutions – in part, this is a result of there having been five Ministers for Universities, four Secretaries of State for Education, three prime ministers, two general elections and one major piece of primary legislation on higher education. So when considering COVID’s impact on our higher education sector, it is wrong to regard the pandemic as disrupting an otherwise staid and static sector.

A third caveat is that, even in areas where change seems likely, it is not always clear exactly what the change will be. Does this summer’s A-Level row make exams look outdated and teachers’ assessments more important or does it make exams look more important and teachers’ assessments outdated? Does the mess over the summer make post-qualification admissions more likely or less likely? What will the impact of the disruption be on equality issues? There is nothing like a consensus on such things.

Six changes

In my remaining time, I want to touch upon six areas where I think there could be some interesting – and challenging – changes.

  1. While I have various disagreements with the assumptions in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’s recent report on the finances of universities, on one thing they were surely correct: that institutions which were financially weak at the start of the crisis are likely to be further weakened by it. This reality has prompted the Government to admit for the first time that it will not simply let universities go to the wall, as shown by the publication of the details of a new restructuring regime. While this recognition is welcome, in some ways it might make other structural changes (in other words, mergers, takeovers and new federations) more likely because we now know just how many strings the Government wants to tie to any institution that succumbs to the official restructuring regime. Any institution is likely to want to avoid giving up so much autonomy and would try to search out alternatives. To get a sense of what might happen in terms of changes to institutional structures, just look at the changes that have already happened recently among some of our bigger alternative providers: the old charitable College of Law is now the for-profit University of Law and owned by the Dutch company Global University Systems; the American University in Richmond has just agreed a new strategic partnership with China Education Group Holdings Limited to secure the long-term future of the University; and the previously not-for-profit Regent’s University is joining Galileo Global Education, which spans over 13 different countries.
  2. Secondly, there will be less money for teaching each student. For example, either the tuition fee cap for home students in England will be allowed to continue losing its value in real terms or the fee cap will be reduced in cash terms, as the Augar report recommended. Although the Augar report additionally recommended the Treasury fill in the gap created by lower fees, it also recommended a cut in the unit of resource of over 10% up to 2022/23. Even if universities can teach for less than they have received in recent times, something will have to give. I suspect in the first instance it will be support services, campus maintenance, community engagement and staff benefits – it seems thoroughly implausible to me, for example, that the hugely expensive USS will look the same in five years as it does now.
  3. While students are currently having to put up with less than usual at the moment – for example, many felt they had little access to enticing freshers’ week events – I suspect the pandemic is likely to leave students wanting more than before. I was chatting to a vicar the other day who moved her services online during the height of the crisis. When churches were allowed to reopen for in-person services, her congregants said, ‘We are glad to be back but would you mind continuing the online services too so that we have a choice.’ When face-to-face teaching can come back properly, how many students will want to see the continuation of some of the online options currently being used? For many students, online learning is not enough for they crave human interaction. But they also want convenience and the opportunity to study when they want to.
  4. One major difference between the UK’s higher education sector and those in other countries is the greater tendency of young full-time students to live away from home at their place of study. COVID has shone a spotlight on this and many people assume the mass residential model is unsustainable, but then again they always have. I’ve just read an official government paper which says, ‘the Government share the frequently-expressed view that it is unrealistic and unnecessary for such a high proportion of students to reside and study at a distance if equally acceptable courses are available to them within daily travelling distance of their homes.’ That dates from 1972, almost half a century ago. I also recall the insurance company that predicted university cities would become ‘ghost towns’ when fees increased in England as most students would, they claimed, stay at home. But the make-up of our student finance system, the diverse nature of our institutions and the way in which travel to university has become a core part of the transition to adulthood for huge swathes of young people mean it is unlikely that the residential model will break down any time soon. Or to put it another way, I suspect the student accommodation market may remain a healthy asset class for some time to come. Intriguingly, the Chief Executive of UCAS suggests in Unite’s new podcast that 2012 could see a ‘drop in the number of students intending to live at home while studying.’ She says people are seeking ‘a greater sense of independence because of Covid-19.’
  5. I do not have much time to focus upon research, except to note that the assumption of continual growth in research spending could come under pressure. The Government is committed to spending on research and development that equates to 2.4% of GDP, which is the OECD average. At the Budget earlier this year, Rishi Sunak promised ‘the fastest and the largest increase in R&D spend ever’ and committed to £22 billion of public spending on research by 2024/25. But if the economy continues to take a big hit from the pandemic, those sorts of sums may not all be there, either because 2.4% equates to less cash or because other spending priorities get in the way. If is not easy to fund excellence, reduce cross-subsidies from teaching and deliver a levelling-up agenda unless the research budget is growing fast. Come to the free HEPI / Elsevier webinar next Tuesday with the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway, and many others to hear more about such challenges.
  6. One other big change I suspect we will see, at least in the short term, is an increase in postgraduate education. New 21-year old graduates may make the same judgement that 18-year old school leavers have been making, which is that staying in education is preferable to trying your luck in the labour market at the moment. At the time of the last recession, there was a big jump in home postgraduate student numbers. It tailed off again when the economy got better again, but only until loans were extended to postgraduates, at which point it jumped up again. Both these factors, a recession and access to loans, are now in place. So I think we can expect a big increase but I am not sure if it is most likely to be temporary or permanent.

To sum up, I think we can pooh-pooh the wilder forecasts about higher education after the pandemic. Even if we chose to take them seriously, they are typically so vague that it is not actually clear what they mean. But that does not mean UK higher education will remain unchanged by the pandemic, and I have listed six changes that seem likely.

I always like to end on a positive note, however. It is not just because of my personal outlook or my reading of the current situation that my thoughts on the changes caused by the pandemic veer towards gradual change rather than revolutionary change. It is also because the UK higher education system still has so many important underlying strengths.

We have diverse institutions and strong demand for them from home and abroad. On research, we have strength in breadth, which is unusual for a country of our size.

And, as the crisis is wreaking such profound change through our society, we will need the so-called ‘third mission’ of universities in boosting the economy, strengthening society and protecting the environment more than ever.

This blog is based on the remarks made by Nick Hillman at a webinar hosted yesterday by St Mary’s University. The webinar will be made available in due course on St Mary’s website.


  1. Sarah Lambert says:

    There is a lot of interesting material in here, but ther eare some points insufficiently explored. In para 2, you mention that the USS is a very expensive scheme. This may be so if looked at purely in terms of salary percentage. However, this conceals the fact that most academic salaries are pitifully low, and most academics have a shortened carerer as they are expected to prepare themselves through the PhD route with little or no funding, as well as spending many years doing their research for free and taking on almost minimum wage levels of contingent employment as adjunct teachers before finally if they are very lucky, landing a proper permantent job. In para 4, on the issue of the number of students who choose to study “away form home: First, any consideration of this issue needs to take into the account the vey sgnifican number of studnets, especiay bu t not ony mature studeents, who do not live in a parental home form which they can travel to and from university. Their “home” is theirs independently and not a sign of childhood they are hoping to flee from. Current studnet support arrangements make life unbelievably difficult for such students as tehy do not take into account astronomical rent levels, and force students into unsustaiable hours of paid work to supplement their loans, as well as living in genuine fear of losing their long term accommodation, since no housing benefit or universal credit is availble.
    Second, for those student living with a parent or parents, the student finance system assumes that they will not be charged rent in thier parental home, and the loan is reduced with that in mind, even though parents are still having to cover the same level of outgoings. Other benefit systems assume that adult children will swiftly leave home. This affects council tax, housing benefit, universal credit as well as the notorious “bedroom tax” etc, making it often unsustainable for students to continue to live “at home”. Benefits and student funding regimes will need a siubstantial overhall, with a genuine attempt to support students adequately to resolve these problems. Para 5 raises the issue of the expense of researach, and gain, fails to take into account that enourmaous ammount of research that takes place completelty unfunded either before finding employment, or outside regular employment hours. Any reduciton of the amount of funded reserach time will make the profession even more elitist and esclusive as those without other means of support will simply be unable to participate effectively.

  2. Becky Parry says:

    No mention of whether universities might become less performative, less punitive and more humane? Surely the big story is still the way HE has been marketised?

  3. Paul Woodgates says:

    Great blog Nick, and very thought provoking – thanks very much.

    I completely agree about the dangers inherent in predicting how the HE sector will look in the future. But as you say, we can identify the trends and influences that are acting upon that future. My observation about the long-term impact of the pandemic is that it has accentuated and increased the pace of trends that were already happening – blended learning, international competition, aggressive regulation, increasing student expectations etc. The pace of those trends has massively quickened, but the direction of travel was already there.

    The outcome of all that is likely to be a greater divergence between “winners” and “losers” in the sector. How that will turn out and what being a “loser” will mean is very hard to predict. But in the midst of all of this uncertainty, university leadership teams have to make long-term decisions about their institutions – who to hire, what facilities to build, what programmes to run, how to apply resources and so on. The only way they can sensibly do that is to avoid the temptation to predict the future – but instead build a university which, while being true to its values and purpose, has the ability to flex and reshape as the world around it changes.

  4. Thomas says:

    Hi. Very good thinking. You should read “Higher Education at the Crossroads of Disruption: the University of the 21st century” by Professor Kaplan. Very similar reasoning.

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