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Drastic change needed for universities’ Covid-19 recovery

Coronavirus pandemic will force higher education to change, but ‘short U’ shape recovery predicted

Universities will need to drastically change the way they have worked for centuries to thrive in a post-Covid-19 world, the incoming chair of the Russell Group has told a conference.

University of Manchester president and vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell told the British Council’s Going Global conference on 23 June that Western universities have been “quite conservative about their models” and will need to be “much more flexible and adaptable in the future”.

“We will need to think about doing things differently to the way we have done for decades or even centuries—and that will be tough. But I think it is also an opportunity for us to look again at the sort of models we have offered in the past and say, these may not be fit for the future,” she said.

She added that universities would need to be more open to working together to mitigate the effects of the virus as outbreaks flare up in different parts of the world. “Of course we’ll be in competition, but we’ll be looking at doing things together, whether it’s in research or in education, because we’ll need that flexibility to adapt to changing scenarios.”

Rothwell said that even without Covid-19, changing demands in the workforce may have pushed universities towards a more collaborative approach to teaching and learning anyway.

The vice-chancellor’s comments came after the British Council predicted a loss of up to £2.3 billion for universities next year as many international students are predicted to stay at home due to travel restrictions and concerns around the coronavirus pandemic.

Elsewhere in the webinar, Coventry University deputy vice-chancellor David Pilsbury said he was “quite optimistic about the future” and predicted “a short U” shape for recovery in the international student market.

He explained that although there were “deep economic effects that we have yet to see unfold, people will dig deep for the young people in their family”.