The next normal

Whether it’s Burberry switching production from trench-coats to non-surgical gowns, Christian Dior from perfume to hand sanitizers, or Formula One companies racing to produce ventilators, the efforts of so many organisations, big and small, in helping fight COVID-19 have been extraordinary. Universities – including Sheffield Hallam – are no exception. Universities have proved their worth in the repurposing of medical research, the availability of 3D printers, the deployment of healthcare students and staff, even in the use of car parking spaces for NHS workers. But this crisis will pass, and universities – including Sheffield Hallam University – will find themselves operating in a post-coronavirus world which may be vastly different in many unexpected ways.

As I write this, the newspapers are full of lurid headlines, describing this as the biggest economic shock since the second world war/for a hundred years/since the industrial revolution and even, in one headline – though how they are measuring the data I don’t know – the biggest economic shock for three hundred years. Whichever your point of reference, the economic and social devastation wrought by the effective shutdown of the economy is deep and extensive. Government has assumed unprecedented peacetime economic powers, and public debt has risen steeply. Household incomes and employment are suffering, with resultant widespread distress. Whilst much economic activity may bounce back relatively quickly, there will be a long period of months and years while government looks to recalibrate its role and to restore national finances.

It’s almost impossible to assess the impact of all this on universities. It’s all but certain that international higher education will be changed out of all recognition. The propensity of students to travel for their education will take a serious blow. Almost everyone expects the numbers of overseas students to fall, and to recover, if at all, only slowly. Advantage will lie with those universities who can use the experience of remote delivery during the crisis to develop a distinctive and high quality remote online learning offer.

There are also wildly different predictions of the future of domestic student numbers. The 2020s see a sharp rise in the number of UK eighteen-year olds, so theoretically demand should rise but it would be foolhardy to predict the lasting impact of prolonged lockdown on educational aspirations and student confidence. Most certainly, patterns of demand – the sorts of courses young people want to study and the ways in which they want to study them – will change. Patterns of delivery will change. There’s already evidence that remote teaching – in schools and universities – is reinforcing gaps between the engagement in learning of more and less advantaged students.

Like all universities, our hardship fund has seen a huge demand from students as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  In response, we have launched the Sheffield Hallam Coronavirus Appeal to support additional hardship bursaries during this crisis. Looking ahead, it will be even more important for universities to do as much as possible to support students from those communities who will bear the brunt of the economic impact of this crisis.

And as almost every other sector of the economy, universities themselves are vulnerable in this uncertain environment, whether due to a significant decline in international students, the unpredictable admissions cycle or impacts on research funding. But the queue outside the Treasury of deserving cases for government support is already a long one. The pressures on the public purse over the next decade will mean difficult choices for government. Early in the crisis, together with Natalie Day, the university’s Head of Policy and Strategy, I wrote a now widely-read op ed piece on eight interventions government should make to stabilise and support higher education through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis, and we have both been following that up in work with other universities, civil servants and ministers. Securing policy support and certainty is absolutely critical for our sector, and this remains a top priority.

Within the university we are building a set of academic and financial scenarios for the future to enable us to think through the decisions we may need to make. We’ve established a series of work groups to develop ideas, reporting to a Future Strategy Group which I’m chairing. There are a lot of different aspects to the thinking which needs to be done. The intentions are three-fold: first, to make sure we can identify routes through the challenges which are consistent with our strategy and mission, rather than responding ad hoc to different challenges; secondly, to look for opportunities which are created as the economy and society emerge from lockdown, and thirdly, to learn from the ways in which we have responded, at speed, to the crisis.

That last point is important. As a university – indeed, as a higher education sector – we learnt some important lessons in March. The first, which was by no means obvious three months ago, was that we had the capacity and capability to make quick and effective changes to the way a large organisation worked. When we needed to be rapid and decisive, we could be. No-one would have wanted to make the decisions we had to make, but the experience of doing so, of empowering teams across the university to re-think their ways of working and to make changes rapidly was in many ways exhilarating. A huge amount was achieved very quickly, and colleagues across the university developed their confidence and competence at high speed. We should all be proud of what we achieved, under hugely challenging conditions.

That agility, shared sense of purpose and responsiveness is something we and all universities will want to embed, with potentially profound impact on the way we deploy resource, use the estate, combine face-to-face and remote ways of teaching and working. In one of the many future-focused briefings I’ve read over the last two weeks, the language has not been of ‘returning to normal’ nor even of the ‘new normal’ but of the ‘next normal’ – which will be different from the way higher education operated before March 2020.

Universities – including Sheffield Hallam University – have demonstrated their value to the public realm. That in itself marks a significant shift from many pre-crisis perceptions of the sector as out of touch and inefficient. But the future is uncertain. There will be some tough decisions to make as we grapple with it. We will need to build on what we have learned about our sector, our students and ourselves; we will need to learn quickly and – as we did in March – be willing to make decisive changes.

Find out more about Sheffield Hallam’s Coronavirus Appeal here.

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