After emerging from a historically demanding year, what can the higher education sector expect in 2021?
There is no doubt that 2020 was a challenging year for almost all individuals, businesses, and organizations.
The coronavirus crisis brought with it physical and mental health concerns, as well as economic difficulties and restrictions to travel and socializing.
The higher education sector faced significant disruption as a result of the coronavirus, with universities forced to close their campuses and cancel all in-person teaching and events.
With vaccines being administered and universities utilizing lessons learned from the past year, there is certainly hope that 2021 will see some positive shifts.
However, there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the time frame for when life will return to normal, with many countries still managing rising case numbers alongside their vaccine rollout programs.
With this in mind, what tentative predictions can be made about the outlook for the higher education sector in 2021?
Online learning is here to stay
Online learning has been one of the most valuable tools for higher education institutions during the coronavirus crisis.
With its ability to connect students, faculty, and administrative staff, the higher education experience was able to take place in the virtual space.
In a previous blog, we explored some of the many benefits of embracing online learning beyond the coronavirus pandemic, including the flexibility it provides students and the introduction of new student markets for admissions teams to approach.
However, the speed at which universities shifted to this new way of working meant that issues did arise during the transition.
In a report by Shivangi Dhawan into the adoption of online learning in India during the COVID-19 crisis, the author cites teething issues such as a lack of available technology, resistance to reimagine education in the digital space, and gaps in the digital literacy of students and academic staff.
They also highlight the need for higher education institutions to “make sure that no student is getting deprived of education due to their location, social class, ethnicity, and so on.”
In 2021, it’s likely that universities will be looking to address any issues with their online learning offering that may have arisen last year, with the view to further integrate online learning into their university experience.
The return of international study
In 2020, travel was severely restricted to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which meant that many students were unable to begin or continue their studies abroad.
The news that there are now several approved vaccines has provided a glimmer of hope that this year will see the return of international study.
According to our latest coronavirus report, 46% of higher education professionals believe the vaccine rollout will allow for a full return of face-to-face teaching within the next 12 months.
This means that those starting university later in the year may be able to consider doing so abroad.
However, according to Universities UK, there are other factors at play that may affect international students, particularly those from, or interested in studying in, the UK. As well as the coronavirus crisis, Brexit and the climate emergency are “forcing us as a sector to review, and in some cases, reset, the way we do things.”
The UK higher education sector is “facing questions over academic freedom, foreign interference, and sustainable partnerships,” and must resist threats to their international partnerships that help to advance research, diversify university workforces, and enable international study.
In 2021, there will be significant uncertainty surrounding how these factors may impact international study, and as a result, universities must strive to maintain valuable international partnerships.
Navigating the aftermath
There is no denying that the coronavirus crisis has had a serious impact on the financial health of universities.
According to Deloitte, short-term financial difficulties for US colleges mainly center around cash flow, such as loss of “parking fees, dining outlet sales, and other auxiliary revenues” as well as additional expenses to manage the impact of the virus such as “partial refunds on fees, room, and board, and the need to scale virtual engagement modalities.”
Long-term financial outlook will come down to enrollment figures, and whether universities can make up for any reductions experienced during the coronavirus crisis, whether that was due to students deferring or choosing to study closer to home in 2020.
A huge factor in repairing the financial gaps as a result of these disruptions is securing strong engagement from prospective and current students.
Every effort must be made by the admissions and marketing team to reach out to prospective students, while ensuring current students remain committed to maintaining their relationship with the university.
Universities will need to personalize their marketing efforts, helping each current and prospective student “assess their needs, weighing the pros and cons of each alternative, and guiding them to the decision that best suits their particular circumstances.”
After such an unsettling year in which many students had their plans disrupted, universities will be looking to reassure students that their needs will be met at their institution, and that higher education is still a valuable and worthwhile path.