Event blog: UK Universities - Adjusting to COVID-19 | IPT

On Tuesday 14 July we hosted a virtual event on UK Universities: Adjusting to COVID-19. We were pleased to welcome guest speakers Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Leicester and Professor Christine Ennew OBE – Provost, University of Warwick. The event was chaired by Daniel Zeichner MP, Chair of the Universities All-Party Parliamentary Group. The event was attended by MPs, Peers, civil servants and staff from various universities and companies with an interest in Higher Education.

Following the event, we invited our guest speakers to provide their thoughts on both the event and wider subject matter as a blog post. Both posts are included below.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Leicester

On Tuesday 14 July I was a speaker alongside Provost Professor Christine Ennew OBE, University of Warwick at the IPT’s virtual event on UK Universities: Adjusting to COVID-19.

Our discussions broadly covered:

  • the impact of COVID-19 uncertainties on UK and international student recruitment and universities workforce and the economic implications for universities and their surrounding local economies.
  • what measures universities are taking to ensure continuation of tuition. Universities have expanded their online learning initiatives to develop a blended 'hybrid teaching' format such as Ignite at the University of Leicester. We also touched on digital exclusion and potential issues of access to IT.

This debate was extremely timely and poses the pertinent question: While the global education market has changed, how can we ensure universities are well positioned to maximise their contribution going forward? Admittedly, UK HE in its current model is not sustainable, but I want to focus on why international recruitment is important not only to universities but to the UK.


International students create a rich environment in universities in the UK. Universities provide opportunities for recruiting international staff and students to create a global environment for universities in the UK. That is why we need to treasure and do everything we can to recruit international students. They add value in so many ways – I should know: I was one!

The total number of non EU international students in the UK is 349,000 and at Leicester we have on average 3,500 non EU international students. Total international student numbers in the UK increased by 5% between 2011/12 and 2017/18 and the economic benefit of international students to the UK is in excess of £25 billion according to UUK. Looking at the countries of origin in more detail: Chinese students make up the largest cohort with 120,385 studying in the UK in 2018/19. China is followed by 26,685 students from India and 20,120 from the USA. China sends more than the sum of the next nine countries. The implications of worsening relations between the UK and China because of the Huawei and Hong Kong tensions was seen as a matter of concern to a number of those taking part.

It is essential for universities to consolidate recruitment from existing markets and also to diversify- to identify new markets and deliver HE in more flexible and agile ways


International students bring significant income to UK.  They are critical for sustainability of UK HE system. The total UK income from tuition fees from international students amounts to some £5.8 billion and accounts for over 14 per cent of total university income, according to UUK.  But, more importantly, UK Higher Education is not properly funded for research and innovation. We cross subsidise research with income from international students. Leicester’s research income for 2018/19 was £58m (29th largest in the UK) which makes up around 17% of Leicester’s total income but our research cost recovery.

There is plenty of evidence that universities contribute to local economies through research and innovation, inward investment, spin-out companies etc. We are anchor institutions committed to our civic missions of being of benefit tour localities.  The University of Leicester contributes £360m annually to Leicester and Leicestershire, and supports every 1 in 23 jobs in the city. Our University is worth £600m to the UK a year and supports 10,000 jobs nationally. We know that Universities are strongly positioned to play a leading role in the post COVID-19 economic recovery and undertake vital research into the pandemic. All of this is at risk if we do not sustainably fund research and innovation.

I welcome this debate within Westminster and do hope that we can continue to discuss how  Universities can be properly resourced to be a key part of the education of future generations and provide solutions to some of our global challenges in health, business and environment.

Professor Christine Ennew OBE – Provost, University of Warwick

I remember it well. Back on March 11th, I chaired an interview for a Professor of Creative Writing and then travelled to London to attend a Gala Dinner for the winners of the prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prizes. All those attending were very sensitive to the need to be socially distant but the atmosphere was still positive and upbeat. That very same day, the WHO officially declared that Covid-19 was now a global pandemic.

Like most universities in the UK, our Major Incident Team had been meeting for some time to manage a broad spectrum of risks. The emergence of the virus earlier in the year meant that we had already started making arrangements for staff and students who might be overseas to ensure we could get them back home. We had already put in place a range of public health measures on campus and had asked higher risk groups to start working from home. Business Continuity processes came into their own and we started to prepare for both partial and full lockdowns.

The week after the declaration of a global pandemic, we were arranging for everyone to work from home, moving teaching and assessment online and putting in place arrangements to support those students who could not travel home at the end of term. Closing laboratory facilities required a bit more time but, by March 23rd, when the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown, we had already moved our operations off campus and were prepared to complete the academic year for our students online. This is broadly reflective of the sequence of events playing out right across the UK higher education sector.

Locking down the University was relatively easy: it wasn’t quite a case of flicking a switch, but it was the easy part. Flipping teaching and assessment online and doing so in a way that did not disadvantage students was more of a challenge. Ensuring that students could graduate was a priority across the sector and we learned much from each other as we determined the best way to do this. (In essence, this came down to a range of safety net arrangements, which meant that students would not be disadvantaged by Covid-impacted assessments).

But thoughts then turned quickly to the new academic year: How should we deliver our teaching and learning? How would we ensure a safe and secure environment for staff and students who would be on campus? How would we support the recovery of our region? And how would we ensure the financial sustainability of the University over the longer term?

As far back as January, we’d been thinking about the impact of the loss of international students on our financial planning for the coming year; updating that thinking left us with an estimated £120m shortfall in income for the academic year 2020-21 (although not all of this was student income). The scale of impact across the sector varied depending on the number of international students each University recruited. My fellow panellist for the IPT Seminar, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, has already highlighted the significance of international students to the UK, so there is no need for me to repeat this. At issue is whether they come; but it’s almost an impossible question to answer because there are so many unknowns. Fundamentally, we had to ask whether students would still wish to study if their campus experience was to be moved online. Initial research evidence suggested they would not; but as the crisis deepened and it became apparent that a significant amount of online learning was inevitable (and that there were limited alternatives), undergraduate students seemed to be increasingly accepting of a ‘different’ first year university experience. For postgraduate students the position was more complex: in some respects when a course is one-year only, it may be easier to delay and the flip to online has a bigger impact than it does for a three or four-year undergraduate degree. Overall, though, the sector had grounds for some optimism – at least as far as UK students were concerned.

But, would international students still come to the UK? Initial research suggested that international students were very critical of our handling of the pandemic and far more complimentary of the approaches adopted in New Zealand and Canada. But they were even more critical of the approach adopted by the US. Deteriorating relationships between China and both Australia and the US were an additional complicating factor, as were the tensions between the UK and China. And of course, international students have other choices – Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai are all attractive study destinations. So, we decided to plan on the basis that only 50% of our planned numbers would be coming this autumn, assuming, of course, that they would be allowed to travel. Across the sector, most UK universities are planning for a loss of 40-80% of international students.

Delivering for those students will involve a mix of online and face-to-face delivery. This is a big change for students and staff alike. Developments in digital technology have ensured that we can move at pace, flip our teaching online (in the form of synchronous or asynchronous lectures) and blend this with face-to-face provision (e.g. seminars/tutorials/lab classes). We can even offer laboratory sessions in the short term through masterclasses and virtual reality environments. This will be different but should not be inferior; our students will benefit from the opportunity to learn how to learn in a digital environment and learn how to operate professionally in such environments – a skill that may become increasingly important for them in the future.

Bringing students back in large numbers to a campus environment requires careful planning and a wide range of public health measures; indeed, many universities are also ensuring that they can offer test, track and trace facilities on campus. Face coverings and social distancing will be the norm and extra-curricular activity will be outside or increasingly online. It will be a different student experience and a different staff experience, but it will ensure that students continue to be educated; that research continues to happen and that universities can continue to support the communities in which they are so fundamentally embedded.