What’s next for UK higher education?

In these turbulent times, universities are asking key questions about teaching, learning, investment and leadership. Now is the time to think strategically about the future

The higher education (HE) sector is always innovating. ‘What next?’ is a well-considered and often-asked question. But with the disruptions of COVID-19, universities have never been more urgently in need of answers.

That’s why, since March, sector leaders have been coming together through the Learning and teaching reimagined (LTR) initiative. Looking to the future, this collaborative project seeks to provide inspiration and insight, as well as developing tools and offering support for planning and implementation.

Now is the time to think strategically about the future of HE. While universities’ emergency responses to the pandemic achieved amazing things, they were just that – emergency responses. As Jane White, executive director at the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), remembers: “In Spring, things that previously couldn’t be done digitally, or were in a five-year plan, were achieved in a fortnight.” The next step has been university leaders coming together to understand collectively what they want to sustain in the long term, taking a considered look ahead to the 2021/22 academic year and beyond. Overwhelmingly, it’s clear they want blended learning.


 In a series of LTR consultation sessions, held between 17 August and 18 September 2020, sector leaders explored four possible scenarios for learning and teaching: face-to-face learning on a socially distanced campus; lecture-led blended learning; student-led blended learning; and fully online learning. Participants mostly thought universities would adopt a blended learning model for the upcoming year. Interestingly, despite current uncertainties about public health, few favoured fully online learning.

But is lecture-led blended learning a practical solution? In exploring potential issues around implementing such a model effectively, the consultation threw out a number of potential barriers to success – including a perceived lack of understanding around digital technologies. According to Jeremy Upton, director of library and university collections at the University of Edinburgh and RLUK representative, this needs to be resolved “so specialists in the space have the opportunity to deliver”. That’s something the LTR programme is addressing head-on; we’ve seen a desire among senior leaders to recognise and prioritise plugging knowledge gaps.

A sense of community 

Creating safe spaces where leaders can learn, experiment and develop their own digital confidence may help them develop policies that ensure change can be well planned, adequately funded and legally compliant.

LTR participants also stressed the need to back up online sessions with face-to-face (yet socially distanced) teaching, and the need for genuine communities for online learning. Joy Elliott-Bowman, director of policy and development at Independent HE, commented: “Online spaces need to be collective places, not somewhere to watch a video or sit in on a Zoom call.”

“As universities get used to the idea that there’s no speedy way through the coronavirus pandemic, they need to think strategically as planning for the future of HE takes on more urgency” 

Creating these communities will be challenging, but sector leaders stress students need them for group work, friendship and support. Further, they could be the key to helping staff who are less confident using tech to buy into blended learning and develop their digital practice.

No quick fix 

This research suggests that lack of investment is also likely to throw up challenges. Network resilience and cybersecurity were issues highlighted CIOs, who felt that learning technologists were facing an upsurge in demand for their support.

As universities get used to the idea that there’s no speedy way through the coronavirus pandemic, the need to think strategically about the future of HE takes on more urgency. It’s unlikely that learning and teaching will ever revert to the way things were, so it’s essential that the sector finds ways to make sure students and staff can embrace digital, finding new ways to deliver effective learning and teaching.

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