On April 22nd, FULL FABRIC hosted a webinar in which six higher education professionals took to the virtual stage to talk about how their institutions are coping with the impact of COVID-19. Each shared their thoughts on online learning, enrolments and what they think the future of higher education will look like following health crisis.
So, how can universities mitigate COVID-19's impact?
Firstly, let's take a look at some of the measures our panelists' institutions have put in place so far, from creating special task forces to moving all examinations online.
COVID-19 crisis management teams
When the team at Stockholm School of Economics realised that COVID-19 wasn't going anywhere fast, and that higher education would have to deal with the impact of the health crisis for a long time, they set about forming a Covid-19 task force.
The task force includes members from across the institution, including HR and Student Union representatives. It focuses how to manage day-to-day operations and scenario planning while looking ahead to the long-term impact. In the webinar, Katarina Hägg, VP of External Relations and International Affairs at SSE, explains that collaboration with students has been crucial to its success - every decision they make that affects students is sanctioned by the SU.
With around 40,000 students, Coventry University in the UK has four task forces in place to mitigate the challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak. Each is dedicated to a different area, including health, the online environment, "returning to normality" and mergers and acquisitions. Each team reporting back regularly to senior management.
Switching to online learning
We also asked the panelists to share their experience of having to move learning and examinations online. It seems like the transition has been relatively smooth across the board.
ESMT Berlin utilised Zoom heavily initially to get over the immediate challenge. Associate Dean of Degree Programmes and Edtech Lab Director, Nick Barniville, explains that the next phase is to move to a structured rebuild of courses. His team will be looking at the mechanics of online engagement (such as breaking down content into more digestible chunks) and rebuilding their strategy accordingly. The school has also implemented a "corona credits" system that students can use to attend face-to-face sessions when the social distancing measures allow.
Rennes School of Business was able to switch to online learning quickly - in fact, they were the first in France to do so. Dean Global School, Santiago Garcia, explains that they are taking a proactive (as opposed to reactive) approach to mitigating the challenges posed by coronavirus. Looking ahead, Garcia anticipates that the utilisation of physical spaces will change. "Twinning delivery" is something they're considering, whereby students attend classes on campus on a rota system. Rennes School of Business is also enabling new students to start in January (semester two) to minimise the number of students dropping out.
Oliver Matthews, Chief Marketing Officer at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management explains that his institution already delivers an online Masters programme that provides students with the flexibility to study wherever they are, whenever they want, and they are thinking about how they will embrace online delivery for other courses come September. Matthews highlights the need for well planned delivery of online learning to maintain quality assurance standards.
The campus at Stockholm School of Economics is currently open; the institution understands that not everyone has a safe space to study at home or a good enough internet connection. Nevertheless, the school is keeping a close eye on hygiene and making sure that students and staff adhere to the social distancing protocol.
(Oh, and we all agree that Zoom fatigue is becoming a "thing"...!)
Recreating the holistic side of studying
While it's impossible to properly replicate the social side of university for students, institutions are doing what they can. Students at EMST Berlin are taking part in global simulations of competitions and attending numerous virtual social events, some of which are facilitated by the university. EMST are also continuing to use an outsourced mental health organisation to provide support for students who need it.
Stephanie Villemagne, Associate Dean MiM and MiF at IE Business School in Madrid, explains that in light of the anxiety created by coronavirus, her institution has created a number of virtual forums for students. IE has teamed up with alumni and professionals to provide career coaching sessions, and they are running health webinars on how to look after yourself properly throughout the crisis.
85% of the webinar's attendees expect enrolments to decrease.
When it comes to staff wellbeing, Garcia says his HR team is sending out surveys regularly to keep track of how employees are coping. Teams are also catching up every day at 10:30 on Zoom to check in on a personal level.
Uncertainty around enrolments
Of course, this is one of the main - if not the main - area of uncertainty for universities at the moment. Some institutions are witnessing a drop off in the number of people applying for MBAs (due to job market uncertainty), and others are witnessing an increase in applications to Masters programmes for the same reason.
In terms of Bachelors degrees, there seems to be some indecision among prospective students in relation to where to study and whether to take a gap year - not to mention the uncertainty around A Level grades. Currently, the focus is on keeping prospective students who have registered an interest or started the application process engaged in the pipeline.
Impact on international mobility
With international students not knowing whether or not they'll be able to travel in September and the issue of visas, higher ed institutions are coming up with creative ways to attract international students and remain relevant during the crisis. For instance, IE Business School has various international offices around the world, enabling them to build communities locally until students can travel to their main campus in Madrid. Garcia's school is rethinking its strategy around recruitment fares.
Future of higher education
Peters believes that the health crisis could accelerate the change that is already happening in higher education, for example how to build in measures that mitigate the impact of global warming. He also remains optimistic, noting that the higher education is resilient and had overcome catastrophic events - including pandemics - in centuries gone by.
80% of the webinar's attendees think higher education won't look the same post-pandemic.
Hägg says that her institution has identified some positive areas for improvement. For instance, SSE's online outreach seminar (which would usually be conducted in person) attracted 250 from all over the world. As such, they plan to host it online moving forward. Also, conducting study trips more locally has the potential to engage local stakeholders and benefit the local community.
When asked about MBA programme content, Garcia explains that economic and social context has always determined curriculum content and philosophy. For example, at the time of the economic crash in 2009, entrepreneurship and the notion of "creating your own trends" became the focus. He says that programmes should be elastic and teach students to anticipate what could happen in the future.
Barniville anticipates that the customer will become more discerning when it comes to the quality of online learning. Universities will also have to use people's face-to-face time wisely as learning becomes more blended. He also expects to see more collaboration between institutions, and hopes that there will be an acceleration towards the social security model, with students choosing programmes that take a more balanced approach to capitalism.
To find out more about how FULL FABRIC can help you keep prospective and current students engaged throughout the health crisis and beyond, request a personalised demo today.