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Higher education institutions are right to innovate teaching delivery, but students’ expectations must be managed to avoid disappointment

  • 26 August 2021
  • By Paul Raybould

This blog was contributed by Paul Raybould, Marketing Director at QS Quacquarelli Symonds. 

Over the past 18 months, higher education institutions have faced extraordinary challenges as they have navigated government lockdowns and re-openings in response to the COVID crisis. The logistical operations required to manage the shift to fully remote delivery so quickly were complex and hugely resource intensive. While the motivation for the transition was the pandemic, we have seen some benefits from the shift to online delivery including teaching becoming more accessible for some students, such as those with disabilities or care commitments. It is understandable, therefore, that with the infrastructure and processes for online delivery now in place – and some students feeling the benefits of this new way of working – many providers are planning to continue some remote teaching as a permanent feature. However, it is vital that these decisions and the rationales behind them are communicated as clearly as possible to students now in order to manage their expectations regarding teaching before the start of term. 

Data-led student insights have been at the heart of supporting the resilience of the higher education sector throughout the pandemic. In January and February of this year, QS surveyed nearly 14,000 prospective UK students as part of its Domestic Student Survey and found that 61 per cent expected the majority of their teaching to be conducted in person from September, with more than two-thirds saying they expected a return to a normal campus life before the end of 2021. These findings shone a light on the expectations of students and in response, QS recommended that the sector prepared for the expectations of students to return to a full campus experience from September.  

With students receiving their results at the start of the month and the new academic year just around the corner, is it now vital for the sector to ensure that students not only have an understanding of what their higher education experience will be this year, but also understand the reasons why online delivery will remain in some capacity. This is not to overlook the logistical challenges associated with making firm commitments – we are all too aware of the difficulties associated with forward-planning within the context of the pandemic – but rather to urge providers to be as open and honest with students as possible. Without a clear approach to communications, the sector risks creating a situation in which the expectations of students regarding face-to-face teaching are not met and they are instead left frustrated by the reality of continued online teaching for which they don’t understand the reasoning.

We are already reading unhelpful headlines circulating that universities are ‘refusing’ to end online lessons, with it being reported that 20 out of 24 Russell group universities are continuing some form of online teaching. The positioning here, that providers are continuing online teaching for no reason is concerning, and we are starting to see the impacts of this narrative. Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson recently expressed his concern at this and warned that ‘if universities are not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees.’ With providers free to now make their own decisions regarding COVID restrictions and without the protection of government mandated guidance, we are seeing the sector be left wide open to criticism and again, the potential for calls to refund fees. It is therefore vital that that the sector ensures that students understand the reasoning behind the continuation of some online teaching, even if providers cannot give concrete guarantees on the exact details of the student experience just yet.

While it may be uncomfortable to ask students to accept continued online learning, QS data show that students remain optimistic and positive. Providers are dealing with challenging Clearing situations. However, they should not avoid being open and transparent about the realities of the student experience this academic year and beyond. Of the prospective students QS surveyed, 45 per cent perceived the pandemic to have had no impact whatsoever on their plans to study in higher education. This suggests that, despite the potential for COVID restrictions impacting teaching as well as other aspects of student life, as we have seen over the past two years, students remain committed to their higher education ambitions. An open and transparent discussion about the continuation of some remote learning, even if specific details are not yet confirmed, and the reasons behind this, is unlikely to deter most students from their study plans but may help to mitigate misleading headlines and calls for fee reductions. 

The start of a new academic year is always filled with optimism and hope, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, this has not changed. QS data show that higher education remains a popular choice for young people seeking to expand their horizons and they will likely remain committed to this choice despite the potential for reduced face-to-face teaching. However, it is vital that the higher education sector manages the expectations of students now to help avoid potential disappointment in September. 

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