From crisis comes innovation

Following the significant disruption experienced by across all facets of life, restrictions are starting to ease and many of us are now looking to the future.

Globally, Universities are planning for the 20/21 academic year. This process is beset with significant uncertainty related to student numbers, graduate employment prospects and the consequent effects on University finances alongside the operational challenges of delivering education to existing and new students in an appropriate manner.

Uncertain student numbers

Whilst UK undergraduate student numbers will be capped at +5% of forecast, international student numbers are highly uncertain. The concern is that many UK applicants will defer their studies to be guaranteed a full campus experience, although with reduced ability to travel and fewer roles in traditional sectors for gap year students e.g. hospitality industry this group has a reduced range of options. How the next few months play out will be critical for the sector and the local economies that rely upon student populations.

Business Schools tend to attract the largest numbers of international students. According to the Chartered Association of Business Schools[1] between 2015/16 and 2017/18 69% of business and administration masters graduates were from outside the UK. This leaves business schools particularly vulnerable to a downturn in international student numbers.

Recent surveys of international student intentions indicate that 69% of offer holders intend to continue with their studies as planned[2], with 31% prepared to study online until it is safe to return to campus and the majority showing a preference for a deferred January start date if face to face teaching was possible. At this time it is unknown whether and how it may be possible.     

Contracted graduate job market

Those graduating this year and in the early phase of economic recovery face an uncertain graduate job market. The Institute of Student Employers report that employers have reduced graduate roles by 12%[3]. In addition they also predict the number of internships and placements available will also fall by up to 40%. The uncertain job market may drive increasing numbers of students to remain in education and pursue postgraduate study as they seek a competitive edge compared to their peers.

Fragile University finances

University finances are already under pressure due to the loss of catering, student accommodation and conferencing income felt in 19/20 academic year, even before the impact of the likely reduced enrollments for 20/21 is factored in. The estimated impact varies and largely depends upon the assumptions in relation to the enrollments[4].


Academics have worked relentlessly to ensure continuity of learning for their students. At my own institution colleagues changed in excess of 100 face to face assessment instruments to ones suitable for online delivery in an incredibly short space of time. Many have embraced new technologies and ways of working whilst juggling care giving and their own health concerns. Journals are reporting record levels of submissions as many complete outstanding research projects. Initial reports are hinting at differential experiences of male and female academics which may serve to further entrench structural inequalities within academia.

The continuation of research is critical to the advancement of knowledge and the ultimate recovery of the economy therefore, significant cuts to university operations could elongate the recovery. However, the research pipeline is fragile and primary field research is likely to be limited affecting many, labs may be similarly be off the radar. It is likely, therefore, that some disciplines and research methods are likely to be more affected than others.

Evolving delivery models

In face of multiple challenges there is an imperative for universities to maintain continuity of service for continuing students as well as admitting new undergraduate and postgraduate students in September.

The uncertainty regarding the exit from lock down both nationally and internationally is likely to result in a differential response across the sector. To date some universities have indicated that lectures will be online in September e.g. University of Manchester[5] whilst others are still waiting to announce their intentions. The Office for Students has made it clear that Universities must inform prospective students how they intend to deliver their courses by the time they receive their results in June.

Planning a socially distanced campus is a mammoth job which involves co-ordination with local transport services, catering faculties and others and even if achievable safely for students and staff may still require the flexibility to revert to online delivery should further waves of the virus strike.

The potential delivery models range from business as usual which is increasingly unlikely to fully online with many likely to settle for starting term online and gradually moving to a blended delivery model as increasing numbers of students are able and most importantly willing to come to campus. Equity across and within the student body will be a guide to how delivery is approached and when and if a return to face to face only teaching is possible.

From crisis comes innovation

Once the initial shock of the pandemic is over it is likely the sector will be able to reflect on its experiences and the unexpected innovations that took place. Some practices will be retained whilst others will fade into the pandemic’s history. The Universities that emerge are likely to be more resilient institutions which embrace a broader range of possibilities.

This could include new degree structures with increased flexibility in relation to entry points and delivery modes leading to innovative assessment modes rather than the traditional time constrained exam. Most of all it will require us all to re-evaluate our curricula, its inclusiveness and how it is delivered and assessed.



[1] Chartered Association of Business Schools, Analysis of postgraduate qualifications in business and management 2019

[2] IDP connect survey of 6,900 international student applicants regarding their intentions to study in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US