Zahir Irani says universities need to tackle inequality and be part of a wider community
The coronavirus pandemic means universities and their students need each other more than ever. University study, even under social bubble regimes and the threat of tighter restrictions, has been seized on, in a context of worry and uncertainty, as a constructive way forward, a chance for routine, and a way to focus energies and build something for a future in which resilience and flexibility will become essential to success.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service have confirmed that the number of undergraduates starting courses in this most difficult of academic years is up, while deferrals have hardly changed.
So far, even the largest institutions have demonstrated how fast-moving and nimble they can be in adapting and how far academic and non-academic staff have been willing to put in extra time to re-design programmes and events and deliver services.
But in the medium to long term entire cost base and infrastructure plans will need to change to reflect a new higher education landscape. This landscape will be one in which provision and relationships are remote and online, and the demand for higher education is squeezed by new commercial suppliers of content and learning platforms—like Google University—that almost wholly focus on skills. It will be one in which private providers can charge lower fees, often feeding off the work carried out by traditional higher education in developing research-enriched curricula. And it will be a context in which further education builds more of a role in providing degree-level study, apprenticeships and T-levels.
That means making sure we in higher education are not just market players but civic universities with an established social role.
For decades, higher education has been turning to the ideas and narrative of business and commerce. While the language and concepts of business are likely to stick, the sense of purpose and mission needs to change in line with changes in society.
Civic universities play to the needs of their local economies and communities, from where increasing numbers of undergraduates are likely to come as more decide to commute and live at home. That means universities need to have a strong understanding of local culture as well as the differing economic and skills landscapes across regions. They also need to build more local bonds and affinities.
Employability and employment
Increasingly, this will include understanding regional employability issues and focusing on merging employability (skills) with employment. After all, nobody wants to be skilled and unemployed.
Covid-19 has made stay-at-home options more familiar. Students who choose this way of studying will be less likely to feel excluded from higher education life. The virus has also led to greater flexibility around timings of intakes, with multiple entry times through the year. This increases accessibility for people with different learning patterns, responsibilities and lifestyles.
Meanwhile, more courses are being focused on social and economic need, with targeted state backing, offering more explicit potential for careers that will make a difference that is seen and felt locally. The government has already made available around 10,000 more health-related places, signalling an ability to satisfy demand. More conversion courses into specific areas such as artificial intelligence and data science could follow calls from the Office for Students’ linked to efforts to improve equality, diversity and inclusion.
All of these things are working to remove practical barriers to entry for non-traditional and disadvantaged students, allowing higher education to help address exactly the kinds of social inequalities that Covid-19 has highlighted and support the sections of society that have been most at risk and affected by the virus. Universities therefore need to be seen an as essential engine to the government’s stated aim of making equality a priority of the new post-pandemic, post-Brexit Britain.
Civic universities also have a fresh attitude to research. They replace traditional routines of scholarship and specialist journal publication with a wider view of local, national and international civic needs and what that means for the research process—public consultation, participation and engagement with businesses and communities. Impact becomes not just another measure, but the core purpose of all activity and distinct from dissemination.
Question marks remain over the impact of online and blended learning. All universities will be learning fast over the coming years. But it’s not mode of delivery that matters most in terms of encouraging equality, it’s culture and living environment. A more inclusive atmosphere is one in which anyone, from any background, feels they belong because their institution is a part of a wider community or communities, not an isolated pocket of elitism. A step change in access and a further shift in focus towards more vocational specialisms and real-life needs can help bring this about.
Pandemic restrictions are an unprecedented opportunity to focus on academic study, achieve depth and breadth of independent learning and develop digital skills. It will be fascinating to see whether levels of motivation among students match up to the new student offer, and how far digital interaction with tutors and peers is a stimulus. An even bigger challenge for universities will be to ensure their civic roles in terms of involvement with businesses and other organisations can be maintained and developed, and that students keep benefiting from contact with real-life issues and programmes aimed at personal and career development.
There will always be a healthy diversity in what higher education institutions offer. There will always be competition and exclusivity. But in terms of general public perceptions and understanding of what higher education involves, the shocks and challenges caused by the pandemic have bumped the sector overall towards a more grounded and accessible university culture. That’s important. On a practical level it makes universities better placed to deal with the demographic spike in 18-year-olds that’s underway, while it is also important for their future evolution and relevance to society, making them relevant to everyone in helping people and communities become more resilient to uncertainty.
Professor Zahir Irani is pro-vice chancellor, University of Bradford and chair of Bradford Economic Recovery Board, Bradford Metropolitan District Council