8 biggest challenges for universities in 2021

From increased digitalisation to rising demand for places, here are the key issues facing higher education leaders this year
No longer an emergency solution, online learning is here to stay in some form – but HE’s digital journey is far from complete

The digital revolution

Call it a pivot, call it a crash course, call it an overnight transformation – when universities had to switch to online teaching and learning in March 2020, edtech finally got the starring role in education that digital education specialists and CIOs had for years cajoled their more traditional colleagues to give it. Teaching staff and students adapted, and embraced edtech in order to weather a global emergency. As one vice-chancellor told Ucisa recently: “our IT team delivered four years’ worth of digital strategy in six weeks, enabling our whole operation to continue.”

But now that global emergency might finally be waning – what happens now?

Clearly, online learning is here to stay but:

  1. In each subject, what teaching will now be online, and what should remain face-to-face?
  2. What parts of the university need to catch-up – which legacy systems now need digitalising?
  3. Will the digital divide ever be fully closed?
  4. With the panic over, which tools are keepers, and which didn’t cut the mustard? What was, for example, edtech’s equivalent of Houseparty?
  5. Are all staff now on board? As Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) said in a speech recently: “Just as a successful vaccine rollout needs more than scientists to be successful, so successful edtech needs more than computer scientists to have a maximum impact. We mustn’t forget the pedagogy because proper tools are only half the job.”


Hepi predicts 350,000 extra uni places will be needed in England by 2035

Rising demand for places

Last October, a new Hepi report advised universities in England to plan for a dramatic rise in demand for university places over the next 15 years. The report, ‘Demand for Higher Education to 2035’ by Rachel Hewitt, revealed over 350,000 more higher education places will be needed in England by 2035, due to changing demographics and participation rates, with projections suggesting that over 40% of demand for places will be in London and the South East.

No such pressures are expected in Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, where rising demand is balanced out by decreases in the young population.




2021 could see more strikes as the pay and conditions row rears its head again

Pensions and pay industrial action

Few had the stomach for a battle over pay and conditions while the very future of higher education seemed to be in peril. The University and College Union (UCU), wisely, dialled down its ‘four fights’ campaign as the pandemic took hold – turning its attention instead to the risks of face-to-face teaching. Universities are more dependent on tuition fees than ever before – according to Hesa, tuition fees now account for 49% of institutional revenues, up from 31% in 2009/10. A drop in students, particularly international students, could constrain university finances during discussions on pension contributions.

However, in July 2020, UCU members voted to reject an offer on pay, workloads, equalities and casualisation in a decision which could pave the way for more industrial action in 2021. The most recent statement from the JNCHES, which negotiates pay rises on behalf of 145 universities, made a final pay offer in early November of 0%.

In 2020, HE professionals at all levels made Herculean efforts to keep their institutions sailing – and will expect fair recompense in due course. Will university leaders convince union members that the perfect storm invoked by Covid-19 makes pay rises unrealistic?



New OfS chair, Conservative life peer James Wharton

University autonomy and the Office for Students

Just before Christmas, the new Office for Students (OfS) chair was named as Conservative peer, James Wharton, aka Baron Wharton of Yarm.

Replacing Sir Michael Barber, who will end his four-year tenure in March 2021, Wharton will be in charge of balancing university autonomy with the powers of the regulator for higher education in England. At points during the pandemic, the latter has overridden the former – as with the row over conditional unconditional offers and threats to punish any institution taking a decision that could affect the “integrity” of the system – those powers have increased during the coronavirus crisis and HE leaders have questioned how far the OfS will now go to tackle HE practices it does not like.

Wharton is a Boris Johnson acolyte – he was campaign manager in the PM’s successful bid to replace Theresa May as Tory leader, and his appointment came just weeks after the commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell criticised the government for “packing” the OfS panel overseeing the recruitment with political allies of the Conservative party.

How influenced by his political leanings will Wharton will be in his new role?



How will universities continue to attract EU students now Brexit is complete?

Brexit and EU students

How attractive are we to students from the European Union, now the UK has gone solo?

Are financial subsidies the answer? Leicester has frozen fees for students from the EU. Aberdeen has announced new scholarships for EU students of up to £8,000 a year to mitigate the impact of Brexit. Royal Holloway are offering grants to EU students to take fees down to pre-Brexit levels.

Then there’s the bureaucracy. UUKi is calling for a dedicated immigration route for EU students needing short-term study and work placements, drawing particular attention to the fact that the current plans for the student route are too expensive, and could deter students. It also suggests the government should drop the off-putting language requirement.

European students are looking at their options for autumn 2021 right now – for providers trying to incentivise them, time is running out.



Removal of statues was just the start – how do universities now effectively tackle racism at all levels?

Racial inequality

The brutal killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter global protests forced the world’s attention on the deep-rooted racism that still pervades today, either subconsciously or consciously.

It galvanised universities to reflect on their own equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies – but nobody thinks the removal of a statue or the renaming of a building is enough. Complacency is the enemy, and change must happen at all levels of an institution, notably in HR practices.

“People relate to other people with whom they have ‘something in common,” Lurraine Jones, head of department, social sciences, University of East London, told University Business in November 2020, adding that universities are “dominated by hetero, able-bodied white men who have historically recruited ‘in their own image’ demonstrating affinity or attribution biases.

“While things are slowly changing (most positively for more white hetero able-bodied women in leadership roles), there are often clear commonalities between both groups in terms of their Eurocentric, socioeconomic and educational experiences”.



University IT and commercial teams are enjoying a higher profile within their institutions since the pandemic

Recognition for professional services teams

Throughout the pandemic, universities have leaned more heavily than ever on professional services teams to keep the show on the road – bringing leaders of those divisions into the most important discussions and decisions, rightly elevating their role in the institution from operational troubleshooters to decision-makers at the highest level. Well, most of the time – see Manchester #Fencegate for what happens when student experience teams are left out of the loop.

The CUBO Winter Conference 2020 heard how universities are now more aware than ever of how commercial services bring life to the campus and the student experience, as well as generate income.

And university chief information officers (CIOs) and their teams are experiencing “newfound visibility and authority” since the Covid-19 pandemic caused higher education providers to switch to online learning, according to a white paper published by Ucisa and Microsoft in December 2020.

It is right that this new high profile becomes permanent – that non-academic voices remain heard and their departmental needs met. In short: never again will anyone think of the IT department as the people who tell you to “turn it off and turn it on again”.



What will the physical campus look like, now that Covid-19 has made the once-impossible possible?

The campus of the future

Assuming we’re all agreed blended learning will continue after the world and its dog have been vaccinated, what happens now to those vast auditoria when lectures exist mostly online? And those rows of staff offices when many staff are now working from home for part of the week?

Covid-19 will trigger long-term changes in the physical campus, some of which will take years to manifest, some of which will take effect in 2021. After all, in today’s HE world, every square metre must pay for itself. Reusing and repurposing existing buildings will become an immediate priority.


You might also like: University spinouts: build your own unicorn in 2021

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?