Already preparing for the negative effect of Brexit, the UK’s higher education sector is now facing a much more serious crisis – the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the prospect of the country leaving the EU without a deal. Our senior consultant, Andrew Weltch, reports.
As we entered 2020, the UK’s universities were worried about the future outside the EU: its impact on the rights and status of many staff and students would almost certainly be negative; international collaborations would be more difficult; and huge pots of European funding would no longer be accessible.
Any Brexit was going to be bad news for UK higher education, and ‘no-deal’ worst of all.
Now, less than half way through the year [I write this in early June 2020], Brexit talks seem to have made little or no progress, with just six months of the transition period left.
But the prospect of this no-deal Brexit has now been dwarfed by the potential damage from the coronavirus pandemic.
Overseas students, especially those from the lucrative Chinese market, are unlikely to be heading for the UK this year – leaving a big hole in the budgets of many UK universities which rely heavily on their higher fees.
And many home students say they will defer their entry, if teaching is going to be mainly online.
A poll suggests almost half fear their education will be damaged by funding cuts because of the pandemic, and almost a quarter think their university will actually go bust. More than two-thirds favour a delayed start to the academic year if it means more face-to-face teaching.
Cambridge University announced in May that it would not hold any face-to-face lectures for the entire 2020-21 year, instead having lectures online, with the possibility of small group-teaching in person.
Most teaching at Cambridge is in small groups anyway, so the cancellation of lectures may not be as drastic as it seemed. Other universities have since stated that they will open their campuses for some face-to-face teaching, with ‘blended learning’ the popular phrase for the proposed combination of digital and limited in-person sessions.
On top of all this, the latest QS World University Rankings, released in early June, show most UK universities slipping down the table, as they lose ground, especially against their Asian counterparts.
The UK university sector has experienced drastic changes in recent decades, but the challenges it now faces are far greater than anything seen before. Higher education is full of very clever people. And that’s just as well, because it’s going to be a huge task to steer institutions through the coming year and beyond.
Weltch Media has extensive experience of working in the higher education sector. Last year, our PR and communications projects with Cardiff University and Swansea University both won awards. London South Bank University has called us in to work on new internal communications, and in partnership with our colleagues at EMPRA, we won a major web-writing project at City, Univerity of London.