COVID-19 has dramatically affected almost every part of education in the UK. We’ve seen mass closures, social distancing measures and financial worries. On top of that, the future of the post-COVID education sector is uncertain.
However, the sector needs to prepare for some crucial changes, such as the decrease in international students and the need for revamped mental health support across all institutions. We’ve explored some of these important potential futures below.
Financial Struggles for Education
Almost all educational institutions have been hit by the pandemic in some way. Recently, the UK government announced that it would still be approving the budgets of state-run schools which assuaged a number of financial fears for the sector.
However, schools, academies and colleges have had to deal with the fees surrounding extra cleaning, staff overtime and school meals that aren’t covered by the national voucher scheme. These institutions have also suffered from the loss of additional revenue streams such as after-school clubs, daycare and other income sources.
That being said, now and in the future, both primary and secondary schools can apply for reimbursement from the government for any extra costs incurred through the pandemic, ranging from payments of £25,000 to £75,000.
For universities and some private schools in the UK in particular, the impact of COVID-19 has been tough. For example, universities have seen a drastic decrease in the number of applicants they’re used to seeing, especially those that hail from overseas.
Over the last 10 years, the number of international students worldwide has doubled, hitting five million. By 2025, it was expected to rise to eight million. However, since the onset of COVID-19, this trend is now harder to predict.
Students are unlikely to return to campuses in popular study destinations such as Australia, the UK and North America this year. In the UK alone, universities are expected to lose out on £460 million in revenue usually generated from East Asian students alone.
It’s a harsh wake-up call for those who didn’t see international students as an integral market for the continued financial health of universities and private schools. This may have a knock-on effect on teaching practices, curriculums and even the job market.
Furthermore, international students, on the whole, represented a £4.8 billion influx in tuition fees for 2014-2015 and £5.4 billion in off-campus goods and services. In research conducted by Oxford Economics, it was found that:
Purchases by international students supported 206,000 jobs.
UK exports earned £10.8 billion through international students.
The employment and economic activity carried out by international students generated £1 billion in tax revenues.
Overall, the gross output of international students was £25.8 billion.
Any drop in international numbers will not only seriously affect the finances of universities but it will also have a big impact on local economies as well. There may be a rush to fill empty places in the coming months, meaning there are bound to be those who benefit and those who lose out.
While it’s difficult to ascertain a concrete vision for the future, it’s safe to say universities and private education will have to redraw their business models. There was talk of capping admission numbers, a plan that was met with criticism. The Institute of Fiscal Studies wrote an article exploring whether universities in the UK would require a bailout:
"The total size of the university sector’s losses is highly uncertain: we estimate that long-run losses could come in anywhere between £3 billion and £19 billion, or between 7.5% and nearly half of the sector’s overall income in one year. Our central estimate of total long-run losses is £11 billion or more than a quarter of income in one year."
They stated it’s ‘unlikely’ universities will be able to mitigate the impact of this loss without significant staff redundancies. Institutions with a larger percentage of temporary staff may be able to make bigger savings this way, at the cost of both financial health for many individuals and a potential decrease in the quality of education.
Mental Health Challenges
From Reception to the final year of university study, the challenges of COVID-19 and the UK lockdown in terms of mental health have been multiple. It’s a difficult job trying to fully gauge the impact that’s been had on the emotional wellbeing of pupils and students of all ages.
Experiences through this time have been varied, with some young people having to experience incredibly negative events. It's a time that’s been potentially traumatic for many and in other circumstances, has worked to amplify any issues they were already facing.
Teachers, lecturers and any educational staff must make themselves aware of any complex experiences their students might have faced. In the future, staff will need to be actively patient, flexible and supportive when it comes to mental health needs. For example, a young person may have had to live through any of the following during this period:
Personal issues at home.
Inequalities (potentially surrounding learning and access to technology).
One thing education institutions will find more than ever is solutions to mental health issues are never a one-size-fits-all approach. Any support needs to be uniquely tailored to the individual.
This is also true for education professionals who may also be struggling. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, 55% of school leaders and 49% of teachers stated their workplace had a negative impact on mental health. Similar to support for students, mental wellbeing may become a more intrinsic part of the overall structure of institutions, providing learning and support throughout the curriculum.
Online and Blended Learning Trends
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a large impact on the accelerated use of online or blending learning styles. We may see this become more of the norm if it’s seen as a good choice for families.
While in some cases online learning has been a success, it’s also been a move that has exposed weaknesses and inequalities within the UK’s teaching offerings. In many cases, young people have been missing out on education because of their lack of access to either WiFi or internet-capable devices.
There’s currently a digital divide in the UK that will potentially affect the success of any future plans for continued online or blended learning. Poor and disadvantaged young people are affected by the lack of technological access. For example, in 2019, 60,000 children from the ages of 11 to 18 didn't have access to the internet in their homes.
This represents a huge inadequacy in universal learning, one that must be corrected.
For international students, demand for traditional multi-year study programs will most likely return, with online provision not replacing the popularity of face-to-face study. However, online offerings may be offered in full to less advantaged students of all backgrounds as this may represent a more financially viable way to receive study.
Potential for Improvement
COVID-19 has exposed many inequalities between children. For example, many were left without food due to a cancellation of food vouchers (fortunately, a decision turned around by the work of Marcus Rashford’s campaign).
Post-COVID education may look radically different, with additional support being given to the most disadvantaged pupils. There have also been calls for a ‘Digital Access Fund’ to reduce the inequalities between those who can access online learning and those who can't.
The Higher Education market is likely to see change. Currently, the online portion of this market only represents 2% of its $2.2 trillion value, but it’s a market ready for disruption. There will potentially be more of an increased interest in online courses which will be cheaper for some students to study and can also act as secondary revenue sources for ailing universities.
While the pandemic has routed out many areas in need of desperate change, some are seeing it as a ‘great leveller’ for education, allowing us to improve our educational environment. Calls for creating a fairer, more equitable education system within the UK have been heard for several years now and it’s possible the COVID-19 pandemic represents a starting point for change.
However, all of these changes are still uncertain. We're yet to see the full impact of COVID-19 or what the post-COVID education environment looks like. Although at this point, we can begin to explore the ramifications.