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Higher education beyond COVID-19: Putting students at the centre


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Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes


By Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes

The current global lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has given us all the opportunity to pause, reflect and think about what we do and why. I have been considering what the future higher education environment will look like beyond the present hiatus and what it will mean for universities in particular: the implications of teaching in an online delivery mode, the kind of leadership we will need and how we might capture some of the ‘learning’ in terms of how we are currently operating.

The most important feature of ‘post COVID-19’ higher education is that in the future, students will be squarely at the centre of everything that we do. Let me elaborate why.

For those outside the higher education sector, it might seem surprising (and even somewhat alarming) to state that a ‘student centred’ approach might be considered new and novel. It seems rather self-evident and obvious. Why wouldn’t universities and other education providers do this as a matter of course? After all, in the world of business and in most areas of service provision (public and private), customer and client centric approaches are axiomatic. Put simply, since the birth of modern capitalism, the customer has always come first.

Yet universities have historically been hard-wired to privilege the institution, not students. In terms of their systems of rewards and their indicators of success, in what they value, valorise and consider sacred, and in the rituals and practices that characterise their work, universities have, for many hundreds of years, been focussed on what works best for the academy and the institution. This has changed radically over the past 30 years and even more so in the last decade; the views of students, awareness of the need for authentic and positive student engagement and enhancing student outcomes are now considered high priorities for all universities, alongside the traditional metrics of research grants, research citations, evidence of social and cultural impact and high-quality teaching – as well as demonstrating fiscal responsibility. But my point is that this shift is, in the long history of universities, very recent and still developing.

I can only speak for universities – not the private sector or other higher education providers – but based on what we might expect to see and experience on the other side of our COVID-19 present, in the future, students will be at the heart of everything that we do. I’d suggest three key reasons for this.

First, the competition to retain current students and attract new students will be intense. Notwithstanding that unemployment will increase as part of the predicted economic recession and that normally such an economic downturn results in more people opting to return to study to re-train, up-skill and seek further credentials, universities will also be eager for students. The losses sustained from the collapse of international education will mean that domestic student markets become vital for all universities who will be seeking to recover lost income – as well as assist the agenda of national reconstruction.

Second, ‘student voice’ (that is, the perspectives of students) will mean more than just contributing to the decision-making, it will be a powerful force in itself, a driver in key conversations. While it is true that universities have vastly improved the ways in which students are now part of their consultation and decision-making processes, the centre of gravity has not always naturally been predicated on what is best for the student; nor have decisions always been made from an holistic student perspective. I suggest this will change, along with increased student contributions into shaping the curriculum and student views on the modes of delivery: the ‘just in time and just for me’ approach will be amplified and increasingly normalised in terms of what students want, demand and expect.

And finally, the student body will massively shift in terms of its current composition. The ‘typical’ university student will no longer be an eighteen-year old school leaver who studies full-time on campus. Students will be as diverse as society itself; they will want to study in part-time modes, online as well as on campus; they will demand synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (delayed) delivery, and they will want to ‘consume’ their learning and experience their education journey in ways that will be radically unfamiliar to those of us who were undergraduates only fairly recently. In addition, the acquisition of skills may well become more important than stacking up credentials, and chief among those skills will be the abilities to think creatively and critically. Entrepreneurial acumen (‘enterprise thinking’) will be highly valued. A more diverse student body will mean, too, that classroom discussions (in person as well as virtual) will be richer and deeper and students will be much more willing to challenge and question received wisdom. This can only be a good thing.

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