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Is UK higher education heading for a digital future?

22 April 2020

As predictions about the future course of Covid-19 continue to develop, the higher education policy world is considering the possibility of a higher education system that is fully online.

This would be a logical path for today’s policy makers to follow. An online degree provides the ultimate in flexibility and choice for students within a marketised system. Unlike the traditional campus-based model with its fixed overheads, there is plenty of potential for different models of delivery and greater competition between providers, which could drive real differential pricing for the first time since the introduction of tuition fees. It would also give students the opportunity to fit study around other commitments such as work, caring responsibilities or volunteering.

So after centuries of tradition is UK higher education set to move forward into a digital utopia?

Maybe not. In fact the reasoning set out above may be fatally flawed because it fails to take into account the desires and motivations of applicants and students themselves. Our research in partnership with HEPI, both in 2017 and 2019, showed that the decision to go to university is a highly emotional one governed by broader factors than a simple cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, there are significant non-academic benefits attached to a face-to-face university experience, which students recognise, want and value.

The New Realists, published in 2019, revealed the breadth of influences on applicants’ decision to go to university. These included their feelings about their own life chances compared to those of their parents, perceptions of risk, and the major role of peers in their decision. For example, students who took part in the qualitative research spoke about the importance of meeting students “like them” when deciding which university to attend, or even whether to go to university at all.

Moreover, students want much more from their time at university than just the credentials of a degree, important though these are. In the data-set that sits behind the “New Realists” report, we found that, for applicants, becoming an independent adult was equally as important a part of the student experience as doing well on their course.

In the accompanying audio clip, students from our 2019 study talk about the many benefits of the non-academic university experience facilitated by face-to-face contact, including developing independence and confidence. Strong within these narratives are the mental health benefits of university friends.

A stand-out finding of the “New Realists” research last year was the impact that student loneliness has on mental health. Going to university is not a complete panacea for loneliness – around a quarter of students in all accommodation types are often or always lonely. But the strong association between loneliness and poor wellbeing means that any change that reduces the ability of students to make strong social connections will quickly be felt in terms of poorer student wellbeing and outcomes among the traditional student cohort.

This is not an argument against innovation within the UK’s higher education sector, far from it. There is plenty of scope to leverage the best of the digital approaches currently being used, opportunities to redesign legacy processes, and perhaps it could be time to give new life to old ideas such as vertical integration and work-based learning. However any changes should be strongly led by what students themselves truly want from their experience, what they value and what they need in order to be successful. Doing so would genuinely put students at the heart of the system in a post-Covid world.