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Path from the Pandemic: After Covid

Debra Humphris identifies how universities can power the recovery from the pandemic

Two years on from the first lockdown in the UK, this week’s Sunday Reading forms part of our Path From The Pandemic series looking at how universities and research are adapting in the wake of Covid-19. More themed articles will be published on Research Professional News in the coming week.

The coronavirus pandemic has presented an onslaught of challenges for every corner of society—and it is by no means over. From health services to hospitality and from travel to tourism, each sector has had to learn to adapt simply in order to survive. Education has faced its own set of unique challenges and, because of their nature, universities have found themselves shouldering difficulties experienced by students, staff and local communities. The role of University Alliance members as anchor institutions, firmly rooted in their regions, has never been more critical.

The foremost duty of higher education is always to its students. In the face of national lockdowns, the sector and its staff demonstrated incredible speed and agility to ensure that teaching and learning, assessment and even research continued despite the challenges that each respective lockdown brought. We wouldn’t claim that it was perfect, but two years down the line, universities and students have witnessed transformations in how technology can enhance the learning experience—from enabling simulated complex birth deliveries to using virtual reality to deliver public service training.

The case for digital

This transformation also embraced lecture capture and virtual tutorials. Sadly, what was a major triumph over adversity, with evidenced benefits for unlocking opportunities for students—particularly those who commute, study part time or have caring responsibilities or a disability—has now become a much-maligned practice and the subject of much media and select committee controversy.

Technology does not, however, make up for the lost in-person experiences that many students felt they suffered during the pandemic. This is why, from March 2021, University Alliance campaigned tirelessly for students to be able to return to campus. Being present in person was particularly vital for students on courses with practical elements that required them to have access to labs, studios, workshops and other campus facilities.

At that point in the pandemic, you could get a haircut or a tattoo but could not attend in-person teaching. Our campuses are once again alive with the sounds of students and staff. But the case for digital change and enhancement will never leave us.

The NHS workforce

Another way higher education has demonstrated its ability to triumph over adversity is in the field of health. From discovering the vaccine and supporting pop-up vaccination centres to hosting Nightingale hospitals, universities stepped up in multiple ways to help their regions in the fight against coronavirus.

This academic year saw yet another huge increase in the number of applications for healthcare higher education courses—particularly in nursing, with an increase of 19 per cent. Alliance institutions alone train 35 per cent of nurses in England and are therefore a huge stakeholder in powering the NHS workforce.

As we identified in our Comprehensive Spending Review briefing in September, ensuring that the NHS workforce is well staffed, trained and prepared for the current and future pressures of the profession should be an absolute priority for the government. If we have learned anything, it is that capacity should be increased, not decreased, for university healthcare courses. This will require an NHS that is properly resourced to support placements and teaching for students. Now is also the time to work in partnership with the NHS on clinical simulation, to open up learning.

Addressing inequalities

Finally, levelling up. Universities will be key vehicles for generating growth in their regions to help drive up the standards of education and skills in their communities. This is particularly important considering the ‘education gap’ that now exists for students who have fallen behind due to the disruption in their learning.

The education gap was not all the pandemic exacerbated. The term ‘digital poverty’ was a new piece of vocabulary with which everyone in education became painfully familiar. As institutions moved fast to transfer all teaching online, students who did not have access to a device and could not access campus facilities experienced multiple setbacks. Thankfully, universities, schools and charities stepped in to offer devices to those in need, but it revealed huge inequalities within the education system—and indeed in society—that are impossible to ignore.

For universities to upskill and reskill the population, partner with industry and help develop business and enterprise, the government must treat them as the essential assets that they are. Its response to the Augar review, which paints a possible future of student number controls and minimum entry requirements, will simply deter talented but disadvantaged students from attending university.

University applications reached a record high last year despite the pandemic. Young people hugely value the life experiences, skills and high-level attainment university gives them—and these last a lifetime.

As the UK looks to recover as a nation from the pandemic, investing properly in universities will fuel the levelling-up engine and deliver real and lasting positive change in some of the most deprived areas of the country. Covid-19 has revealed how universities can be mobilised to address the UK’s priorities, and how their deep roots within their communities and partnerships with local industry can benefit towns, cities and regions.

All we ask is for the government to fully realise the incredible asset that is the UK’s higher education sector and champion its work—letting it get on with the job of powering the UK’s future.

Debra Humphris is vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton and chair of University Alliance.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight