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Covid-19 and Tertiary Education

Covid-19 and Tertiary Education

What does the future hold for tertiary education after the Covid-19 crisis? Dr Jane Lethbridge and Professor Patrick Ainley, from the University of Greenwich, set out the challenges.

Tertiary Education faces three interlinked global crises: environmental, economic and Covid-19. This last has burst the bubble of market-led higher education, depriving it of the overseas and home students it had relied on. Institutions are expected to close or merge with ‘technical universities’ delivering supposedly ‘vocational’ courses while research institutes serve industry and commerce. When this reordering does not meet government’s expectations for a more differentiated hierarchy with variable fees by course and institution, a rationalising body will predictably sort out the survivors. Perhaps the promised ‘renationalisation’ of FE presages this future for HE.

Avoiding this is understandably the priority for the University and College Union trying to defend its members, especially the legion of contract lecturers, researchers and part-timers. Lobbying for research funding has met with temporary subsidy from government but at the expense of predominantly teaching institutions. However, we argue that teachers and researchers also need an aspiration for an alternative TE because the aim should not be to return to the normality in which young people are pressured to ‘go to uni or die’, desperately seeking secure semi-professions.

Apprenticeships present a popular alternative, yet often apprentices are not needed because – like many knowledgeable professions – many skilled trades have been routinised, automated and outsourced in UK’s predominantly service economy. At the same time, the productive roles of key workers have been recognised as requiring education and training for a new democratic expertise. This can be supported by lifelong learning as a public good open to all in free, full- or part-time, adult and community, further and higher Tertiary Education and training in and/or out of employment.

Because it is lifelong, this entitlement need not be taken immediately or full-time by all 18+ year-olds as other opportunities may be available in and out of employment. Studying full- or part-time whilst living at home will then be accepted as normal as in mainland Europe, where most students apply to their local university though this does not exclude residence at specialised courses further afield. To facilitate progression, support for FE must be maintained alongside support for HE as in Scotland where many more take free (!) 4 year undergraduate programs.

Primary and Secondary schooling should also connect to Tertiary learning with institutions collaborating instead of competing in the academic selection of more or less expensively acquired cultural capital. Regional, sub-regional and local learning support for schools, colleges and universities should relate to green economic development. TE needs to deliver new courses that can support this social mobilisation unparalleled in peacetime with workers qualified in new skills and knowledge to deliver carbon-neutral living. The creation of such resilient infrastructure will also generate new types of employment requiring clear career paths, eg. across a unified health and care sector.

The costs of maintaining Tertiary institutions will be offset by those choosing to exercise their entitlement to lifelong learning later in life. Universities will not then remain so ‘front-loaded’ by young entrants as they have become but will be open to students of all ages. Not that all participants would undertake full-time degree courses – many might enjoy part-time recreational and creative activities that used to be provided by adult education institutes and FE colleges as well as on HE extra-mural courses. Labs, workshops, studios and libraries must be kept open, especially with the temporary move to on-line teaching, which in general does not improve the quality of learning but for which under- and post-graduates are expected to pay full-cost fees. 

Combining their teaching with research, scholarship, experiment and creation is an ideal upheld by many academics. Teaching should thus be integrated with practice as it is in apprenticeship as the model of an academic vocation with a pedagogy of lifelong learning that is more research-, or rather, practice-led but by the student/trainee/apprentice, not the teacher. In comparison, in what can be called traditional FE it was part of lecturers’ occupational identities that colleges – unlike schools – ‘never failed anyone’ and  – unlike universities – ‘never turned anyone away’ but found something for all applicants with courses from special needs to post-graduate. It is to this open model of provision that Tertiary Education should aspire to return.

Practical green strategies for a mainstream university are offered at 

  • Dr Jane Lethbridge and Prof Patrick Ainley, Business Faculty, University of Greenwich

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Work areas: Education.