The value equation –tallying the cost of university COVID responses

Whichever way you look at it, covid will cast a long shadow over 2021 and beyond

While many will look at 2020 and consider it to be one of the more turbulent years in their lives, it’s an especially rough time for those on both sides of the higher education equation. For lecturers and academics, they have had to cope with mounting pressure over potential institution bankruptcies, rapid pivots to how they deliver their lectures, and teaching throughout a pandemic. But this year’s student intake has faced an equally worrying year – especially first-time undergraduates, who may have been looking forward to their university experience and have instead been faced with lockdowns, varying teaching approaches, and a lack of the community feeling, which is usually a hallmark of college life.

All of this comes at a time when students also have greater power when it comes to feedback on their university experience. Most rankings now include student satisfaction scores in their weightings, and their ratings are also now a greater factor in staff and department scores. And yet, a 2020 Natwest survey found that less than a third of students were satisfied with their institution’s coronavirus support. This raises a broader concern – these are fee-paying customers, and the same study found under one in ten students felt they were getting value for money from their teaching this year. In fact, the survey found that many consider the experience they have received so far this year may adversely impact the ultimate outcome of their studies.

Questions of teaching quality

While many universities have been navigating teaching challenges while contending with varying national and local lockdowns, it’s the quality of their teaching experiences which may linger in the minds of graduates. While many organisations had been at least investigating their approaches to digital or remote learning techniques ahead of the pandemic, over a short space of time, their hands were forced and this resulted in a range of tactics being swiftly deployed to keep the teaching flowing. In some cases, there were even discrepancies in which tech was used between one individual and another within a single department, leading to a patchwork approach to educating students. Undergraduates with no other experience to compare this to would be forgiven for feeling somewhat let down by this wildly varying response.

Worse still are the instances where people feel left out or even left behind. In the rush to keep courses running, those students who don’t respond well to lecture-style approaches, or who learn better through more practical and hands-on techniques, could well risk falling behind. Depending on the technology tools being deployed, the academics and lecturers may have no idea until assessment time.

A unified approach

There’s still time to address some of the challenges faced during Autumn 2020. If learning design and levelling out the discrepancies in teaching practices between departments, not to mention the overall strategy from the university, aren’t key discussions, they should be. Ensuring a unified approach for the university may be key to securing its future success. Fast-learning and adaptive institutions have rapidly seen the benefits this year in ensuring a consistent and even flexible digital learning strategy, which stretch well beyond student satisfaction and results in accessibility, future-proofing, and even the long-term external perceptions of an institution as a forward-thinking and attractive place to study.

Whichever way you look at it, COVID will cast a long shadow over 2020 and beyond. Universities are not alone in facing a swathe of challenges when assessing the long-term impact of their response, but this highlighted one issue above all: the ones which will emerge strongest after last year’s tribulations will be the ones that have learned their own lessons when it comes to their remote and distance learning options, in particular when it comes to students’ first-hand experiences. Assessment time on this matter may well come very quickly.


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