The “new normal” for universities: how Covid-19 could reshape higher education

“In many ways we’re seeing an acceleration of the nascent changes that already existed”


Covid-19 has forced sudden and great change across the entire education sector. We have seen rapid investment in edtech to safeguard students’ courses and ensure some form of continuity, writes Stewart Watts, vice president EMEA at D2L.

The UK government’s backing of the Oak National Academy online learning platform, the supply of laptops and 4G routers to students to ensure they can connect remotely – the coronavirus has forced the first stage of the edtech revolution.

Yet what does this mean for when the current crisis has abated? It’s unlikely that we’ll go back to exactly how we were before, and there are several ways in which the higher education sector could change even after the viral risk has disappeared.

Online learning comes of age

In many ways we’re seeing an acceleration of the nascent changes that already existed. Online learning, for instance, previously a key point within a university’s five-year roadmap, has now become an integral delivery mechanism for courses underway right now.

Only a couple of months ago, medical students took their final exams online for the first time. Course content for universities across the country is now stored and shared over the cloud, and lecturers have explored alternatives to traditional face-to-face seminars. Whilst it has not been a seamless transition for all, education leaders, faculty and deans must realise that, given the circumstances under which it has taken place, this has been a success and technology has proven its resilience.

Likewise, with current travel bans in place, will international students continue to study remotely for the foreseeable future? What will be put into question is the value proposition of the university and the future delivery of education as a whole.

Education’s value statement

As a recent government report revealed, a large group of graduates or school leavers are not adequately prepared for work and lack everyday office skills. More importantly, education leaders now need to consider current student employment rates, and how they are likely to be affected in the coming years as a result of Covid-19. Education should in fact be one system that works for an end user – focusing on upskilling and reskilling, preparing individuals for their future.

As shown in Australia, there are now micro-courses for skills that are in serious demand (nursing, for instance) as a result of Covid-19 that are easily integrated within university programmes with government funding – these can plug skills gaps and suit market needs. There’s an opportunity here for universities to consider alternative learning pathways, and the likelihood of more student interest in short-courses and skills-based programmes.

If these short courses focusing on skills, and other forms of online learning, do indeed gain a footing, we may see employers considering alternative forms of qualifications. Especially if they focus on competencies and skills based micro-credentials, meaning graduates can be readily integrated within the workplace.

Competition will be fiercer between universities

As we’ve established, online education will be seen as core to institutions’ plans for resilience and academic continuity. Similarly, will students start to select higher education institutions on new criteria, including the quality of their online instruction?

Once it is proven that quality degrees can be taught online successfully, this will raise bigger questions for the future of student finance as more students consider traditional courses – known for higher fees – versus fully online options or short courses, which may prove more cost-effective. In which case, there is a good chance that UK universities will find themselves competing with European and other international institutions for prospective online students.

We’re not out of the woods yet

As we begin to see the benefits of edtech – from reaching every learner, to designing data-led programmes or personalising courses and offering alternative learning methods – by the time this crisis has ended, our concept of learning and view of university will have changed forever.

About the author: Stewart Watts is Vice-President EMEA at D2L. He has worked in the software industry within education since 2011. At D2L, Stewart manages the EMEA region and has overall responsibility for the retention and growth of D2L’s customer base within both the education and enterprise sectors.