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Willetts predicts ‘radical shift’ in course delivery post-pandemic

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Former universities minister outlines potential path for online learning and international education after Covid-19

There could be a “radical shift” in how courses are delivered for international students after the pandemic with far less time spent abroad, former universities and science minister David Willetts has suggested.

Speaking at Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum 2021 on 13 April, Conservative peer David Willetts (pictured) said that although there will be students who still want to travel to another country for their education, universities “could well see a very radical shift in the balance” between online and in-person learning.

Willetts, who was universities and science minister between 2010 and 2014, said the shift would see a “significant part of the course…delivered online” along with three- or six-month stints abroad, making up “a smaller part of the offer than would have been the case before the epidemic”.

Willetts also suggested that universities are facing a “real challenge” from students opting to take online courses that are valued by employers but not run by universities.

“People are still going to need higher education, but it may come in different forms and not require either physical attendance at university or a university name attached to it, and I think that is another way in which the world is [becoming] different,” he said.

‘Voting with their money’

The former minister was speaking after Adrian Monck, managing director of the World Economic Forum, suggested in an earlier conference session that students will “vote with their money” and choose cheaper courses run by employers if universities do not improve their offer.

Elsewhere in the session, Willetts said universities need to debate the “ethical standards” for using online data. “Imagine an education system where you are keeping data on every keystroke over someone’s entire educational career. That is both a fantastic resource, but also requires as much care and attention as we put into thinking about online patient records,” he said.

But Katherine Fleming, provost of New York University, warned that gathering that level of data and the “idea that that would be the yardstick by which someone’s engagement or accomplishment might be measured” is “tremendously dystopian”.

Research Professional News is an official media partner for Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum 2021.