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University Challenge: Securing Scotland’s universities post-COVID-19

Posted: 25th November 2020

Scotland’s 19 universities have been dealt a severe financial blow by COVID-191. Unfortunately, the easing of lockdown restrictions has not ended the pain. Campus environments, students gathering in lecture halls and at social events and the global travel associated with international students are all factors in spreading the virus and have had to be reassessed. This, teamed with ongoing and potential future lockdowns across the world and ongoing social distancing requirements have meant that universities have had to adapt to a new way of working, with most adopting a “blended approach” to teaching and learning for the new academic year.

The short-term focus will necessarily be on fire-fighting immediate challenges, especially in the absence of a clear understanding of the duration of the pandemic and the full impact of the fallout on the sector. However thoughts in the medium to longer term will turn to resilience and to the future of Scotland’s universities, many of which are vital to local economies as well as performing a critical research role, underpinning the aim to deliver a high-skill economy and directly employing thousands of people.

Even before COVID-19, universities were looking at ways to maximise opportunities to become more adaptable in the face of changes stemming from increasing student expectations and greater student diversity with more part-time and lifelong learners. Many of these discussions have been accelerated and some of the measures which have been brought in in response to COVID-19 are likely to be permanent. The question looking beyond the immediate crisis, is whether universities want to take a “wait and see” approach, or whether they want to be proactive in ensuring that they are fit and ready for whatever the future holds.

The latter will include taking steps to ensure that physical assets accommodate a range of new requirements, from a reduced number of teaching spaces as people work in a different way with more time spent at home, to fewer lecture theatres as universities move away from teaching large groups directly. As we move forward, flexibility and resilience are likely to become the priorities. Spaces will be designed or reconfigured to be multipurpose, with dividers which allow their size to be increased to support social distancing and technology built in to help students follow teaching from other locations. Placemaking will become increasingly important, with outdoor areas becoming usable as well-ventilated teaching spaces, with sensitive screening and other features which support flexibility and maximum usability. And future buildings or those being redesigned or repurposed, will be considered through a lens of how people can continue to move around safely, with wider corridors and passing spaces and better ventilation, to reduce the need to close down buildings and to allow study and teaching to continue.

This paper discusses some of these options and the context surrounding them.

Key points and recommendations

  1. Scotland’s universities face an uphill struggle in the next few years, given the ongoing issues relating to COVID-19, uncertainty surrounding the impact of Brexit on the sector and a funding blackhole.
  2. Governments and economies need universities to survive and thrive. The research role performed by universities has been absolutely vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. The education role they perform underpins economic growth and of course, they also directly employ thousands of people. We therefore urge the Scottish and Westminster Governments to consider bringing forward a bespoke package of measures to help these vital institutions weather the COVID-19 storm.
  3. Now the critical role international students play in university funding and cross-subsidisation of courses key for future economic growth and recovery from COVID-19 has been understood, Governments may also need to reconsider their position with regard international students, who have been caught-up in the wider debate around immigration.
  4. Universities themselves should look to future-proof their estates, designing in resilience and flexibility to new infrastructure and looking at existing assets through the lens of possible future outbreaks of COVID-19, other possible pandemics and future-proofing to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

You can access the full report here.

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