Do university students really need to go back to campus?

The shift to online and blended learning poses a vital question: does the “old normal” need to return?

Children have returned to classrooms up and down the country, much to parents’ relief, but older siblings studying at universities in the UK are still likely to be hunched over a laptop at home. Learning online is the new norm for higher education, begging the question of whether universities ever need to return to campus.

“Where distance learning was a small part of every university’s portfolio, it’s become front and centre,” says Claire Taylor of SUMS Consulting, which is based at the University of Reading. She points out that compared to the Open University, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, the move to remote learning is a forced pivot, rather than a choice, but this does not mean it hasn’t been beneficial. 

For students, who might be put off by the high cost of tuition and accommodation, the ability to learn from home without having to worry about studying in a strange city is a massive relief. 

For forward-thinking universities looking to expand their student base beyond their borders, it’s a boon to access new markets. According to UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, 12 per cent more students from outside the European Union held an offer at a UK university for the 2020-21 academic year than 12 months before, offsetting losses from EU countries. 

While distance or digital degrees aren’t anything new, the range of universities offering these options is different and could make university much more accessible. “Is there the potential for a more inclusive, egalitarian, widely inclusive higher education? I would say yes,” says Dr Richard Watermeyer, professor of higher education and co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations at the University of Bristol. 

Yet Watermeyer thinks that’s the case internationally and not necessarily in the UK higher education sector. “In the UK we operate on a market model,” he adds. “Everything universities do is accordingly dictated to by financial imperatives. That becomes something of a bind to universities: the philanthropic versus the bottom line.”

Because UK universities were relatively slow to adopt digital tools for learning even before the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of investment required to bring them up to date is significant. This means that a fragmentation of the market into higher-priced, on-campus teaching and lower-cost remote tuition is unlikely, Taylor, a former England cricketer, believes. 

“The movement of a standard module from being a face-to-face campus experience to distance learning would require a significant increase in the volume of students on that module to make it worthwhile,” she says. 

Universities are also unlikely to want to reduce fees for online teaching, despite the protestation of students who believe, often incorrectly, that they’re getting an inferior service, just to shore up a university’s bottom line. “If students are taking degrees with online components to them and still getting into good jobs that are well paid, the justification for the fees will remain as the return on investment the students are getting is the same,” says Andrew Crisp of consultancy CarringtonCrisp.

Digital learning is more egalitarian in many cases, but universities acknowledge they’re still on a war footing in putting together their online teaching offering and therefore are keen to return to campus when they can. There’s also the added complication that not being on campus has a knock-on effect on university finances as students, who are distant from the physical space, are not spending money on their accommodation or in their campus shops and bars. 

“If those add-ons, like accommodation, are not being used in the same way, universities are losing out,” says Crisp. Watermeyer also points out that large campuses are important money spinners for universities even when students aren’t there. “Think about conference season during the summer,” he says.

But he believes that the dash back to on-campus teaching won’t be a wholehearted reversion to the norm. Blended learning, combining the best elements of face-to-face tuition and online learning, is the most likely path for those courses that don’t need fully practical teaching. 

“Having a flexible model that is part online and part on-campus means there’s a way forward that allows people to have their practical experience, but also the benefits of an online experience as well,” says Crisp.

He thinks the university experience may change from one where fresh-faced 18 year olds pack themselves off to another city for years into a more sustainable, equitable, lifelong learning model. “There’s an enormous potential to take the content they have and shape it into short courses, perhaps a certificate rather than degrees, which support people in extending their employability as they work longer and live longer. People will need to reskill and upskill more,” he says.

Through the most challenging of circumstances, there are as many opportunities as setbacks in digital learning. There is the opportunity for more inclusive education, bringing a more global cohort to UK universities, and the chance for students to pick up new skills and understanding that would take a lifetime of travel to achieve. The challenge is whether universities are ready to rise to the occasion. 

“The pandemic has been symbolic of a cultural handbrake in terms of an investment and operational deployment of digital technologies,” says Watermeyer. “We’re still on something of an emergency footing. We’re still looking through a very murky crystal ball. It’s not clear to the vast majority of academics how their universities will respond to this.”

If they respond in a positive way, the opportunity of opening up education for all could be unlimited.