This year, universities the world over have swapped face-to-face teaching for online lectures, tutorials and seminars. The move has prompted widespread debate in academic circles and in industry. But Lord Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, long-standing politician and a senior adviser to Bridgepoint, argues that economics present the real test for further education, not technology.
A t a couple of webinars and a recent board meeting, I was asked something that puzzled me. It seems to be at the fringe of what should concern employers in the future, when, with progress, Covid-19 retreats malevolently into history.
This does not mean that I think life will return to what we assume is normal, at least as we defined it in 2019. An Australian friend of mine recently mentioned a shark attack on his favourite beach. For two weeks afterwards, no one swam or surfed there. Then a few brave swimmers plunged in; then more and more. Before long, the beach was as crowded as before the shark had come calling.
Change on the cards
His analogy is clear. He reckons that soon after a vaccine arrives and Covid-19 infection rates plummet, we will simply go back to how things were before.
High-quality education in universities and vocational colleges will be absolutely vital in the future to corporate and therefore national success
I just don’t believe it. One area where there is bound to be change is in higher education, and therefore in the candidates for the future jobs market. Recruiting the most talented graduates, for what will probably be a more limited line of employment opportunities, will require even more careful and informed selection processes.
That leads to the questions that I have been asked of late, but which I do not believe should long detain us. Has Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of online teaching by universities and will it produce better graduates for employers? The answer to the first question is, of course, affirmative, though online teaching as a pedagogic tool is not new, especially in the US. I notice hundreds of completely free courses are advertised online. But plainly, the use of online tuition by British universities has increased, as higher education opens up without – we hope – turning into a recurrent super-spreader.
The quality and value of online teaching is not uniform, nor could it be. The experience of the university I know best shows surprisingly high levels of satisfaction on the part of students with work online, and considerable agility on the part of teaching staff new to using these tools. Overall, the satisfaction and value differ sharply, dependent on what is being done. Small tutorials – one-to-one, or one-to-two, for example – work fairly well. So do formal lectures. Three or four lectures can be packaged for a week, with students allowed to refer back to them when they want, and a question-and-answer session can be held at the end.
What seems to work less well are seminars with, say, seven or eight people. Managing interactions in these situations is very difficult.
Taking everything into account, online teaching can be very useful as an additional learning tool. But it is certainly not transformative, except that I suppose it raises the technical literacy levels of both teachers and students.
Recruiting the most talented graduates, for what will probably be a more limited line of employment opportunities, will require even more careful and informed selection processes
Yet I cannot imagine that online tuition will have a very big impact on the graduate jobs market, not least because its quality will continue to depend so much on those who teach and those who learn.
Foreign income stream
That does not mean I believe Covid-19 will leave universities unscathed. But I think the macroeconomic consequences of the pandemic will have a far greater impact on the quality of our universities than any move to online teaching.
British universities have come to depend hugely on the income stream generated by foreign students. Inadequate levels of government funding, coinciding with a large increase in the number of students, have made this source of income massively important. Even leaving aside problems with the recruitment of Chinese students at a time of growing tension across the board with Beijing, there are wider issues when students come from foreign cities and are inevitably nervous about flying abroad to study during a pandemic.
This anxiety is clearly intensified if the university to which they are going, and to which they must pay hefty fees, is teaching online and reducing their social interaction with other students.
Online teaching can be very useful as an additional learning tool, but it is certainly not transformative
Financial impact of Covid-19 on UK universities
Around £790 million of income was lost by universities in 2019-20 from accommodation, catering and conference costs
Universities are estimated to have spent in the region of an additional £622 million as a direct consequence of Covid-19, including on making campuses Covid-secure, enhancing online and blended learning capabilities, and increasing available support for students
£3bn-£19bn long-run losses
Earlier this year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies* estimated that total long- run losses for the higher education sector could total anywhere between £3 billion and £19 billion
There is ongoing uncertainty over income in 2020-21 – international students are still largely yet to arrive
*Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies (
Part of the reason for coming from abroad to British universities is admittedly that so many of them have such a good reputation. They also, of course, offer a broader cultural and social experience than staying and studying at home. But how strong are these advantages at present?
A very good Financial Times journalist – brought up in the Netherlands, educated at Oxford and Harvard and now living in Paris – wrote a column recently arguing that he thought his own teenage children should forget about university in Britain or the US and instead go to a good cheaper university in Canada or an agreeable European city.
British universities will struggle in a more difficult market. Moreover, they will not find much sympathy among the political classes, and will probably have to contend with efforts both necessary and highly complex to reorganise the whole higher and further education sectors, with the intention to provide – as in California – a pretty seamless transition between community-level vocational training, first-degree universities and more research-focused institutions.
This will be the real background to the challenges faced by employers in the future, in a market when those seeking work will greatly exceed the number of jobs available.
Has Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of online teaching by universities and will it produce better graduates for employers?
Compared with these major factors, I am not sure that online teaching will add many problems or result in many more opportunities.
High-quality education in universities and vocational colleges will be absolutely vital in the future to corporate and therefore national success. Whatever the sort of ‘new normal’ will be after the pandemic, higher and further education will be very significant factors in our economic progress, not least when we depend so heavily on services n