Reflections on the longest year and a look at what will be important in 2021
By Dan Beynon
I’m having countless conversations with colleagues at the moment (and by conversations I mean our new 2020 conversations involving several participants, their kitchens or bedrooms and the constant and comforting refrain of “you’re on mute”) and those chats end up with all those involved acknowledging that they need to get some rest. 2020 has felt like the longest year ever and been absolutely shattering - everyone is very tired. I really hope we all get a chance to recharge our batteries in the next few weeks.
It’s been an incredibly difficult period for everyone. Here at SMRS the whole team has responded fantastically to all that has happened and concentrated on looking after each other throughout.
And despite facing some very difficult situations the UK’s universities have met the challenges brilliantly also. There has been amazing, world-leading work done by fantastic teams of scientists as part of the global response to COVID-19 and as we head into 2021 the role our universities must now play in helping us navigate the economic difficulties that lie ahead should be more clearly acknowledged, and understood, by the UK Government. However, this unique period could never have passed without institutions making mistakes and experiencing moments that might have been dealt with differently. The key to a successful response to the crisis has been keeping the best interests of the student at the heart of every decision and focusing on always giving them the best possible support and information. Our universities have worked unbelievably hard in creating a safe environment that gives students what they need to be successful under the current circumstances. The student experience and student wellbeing must remain the highest priorities as we move into 2021 and the time after COVID-19.
At the beginning of 2020 UK HEIs faced some existential challenges and the events of the last 12 months certainly have not removed those obstacles. However, between March and December 2020 the situation could have become a whole lot worse across the sector than it actually has. As 2021 begins, demand for UK Higher Education remains very strong. The 2021 undergraduate application cycle sees the sector just slightly up on applications year on year but there are huge variances in terms of institutional performance, and it will be interesting to see whether that variance settles down a bit by the time we get to the important January deadline. Unsurprisingly EU applications have dropped significantly but international applications are up. Nursing and healthcare related subjects continue to drive growth for many universities. It’s likely the impact of COVID-19 on both attendance and timetabling in schools has led to it being harder to provide the usual amount of advice and guidance and that’s impacting on the speed of applications. A big question mark hanging over 2021 will be whether or not we see exams take place in England or will the Department for Education once again follow the devolved nations and cancel exams. It is hard to see how the exams can be adjudged to be fair in an environment providing such inconsistent learning experiences.
Looking at the work we have been involved in at SMRS during 2020 there has been a big focus on understanding and delivering the best customer experience from first touchpoint to graduation and beyond. We’ve been working hard developing more detailed audience and market insights whilst helping deliver even greater efficiencies in terms of all our campaign performance. Back in March a major concern for us all was whether students would travel the same distances to University in 2020 and this was both a domestic and international question. As we move into 2021 universities need to understand more clearly their local and global market opportunities and how best to nurture those different audiences. The continued financial pressures on UKHE mean this work will remain a priority in 2021.
It’s impossible to consider the events of 2020 without mentioning the accelerated move to virtual experiences and online provision. This has been an amazing achievement. But the challenge for 2021 is how we make these new virtual events and experiences truly effective and valuable. We’ve just published our syndicated research into the UK Online Distance Learning market (you can get the white paper here) to help us all understand what’s important for students and stakeholders - getting this right in 2021 and beyond is a priority for us and for UKHE.
My last, and perhaps most important, reflection on 2020 is that our universities can no longer risk inactivity and caution when it comes to their approach to some of the major issues that are so important to their students and the wider public. Purpose, sustainability, ethics, race, diversity, wellbeing and equal opportunities matter more now than ever before. An even cursory internet search shows us that 2020 has seen too many universities badly fail to deliver on some of their promises and responsibilities in these areas. Through 2021 and onwards the university brands we build, the cultures we promote, and the promises we make are going to come under even greater scrutiny. At SMRS we strive to change universities for the better and in the next few years we will be working doubly hard to help our great institutions deliver on those promises.