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Trends and themes that will shape the future of education

Richard Robinson, Head of Education, shares his insights into the challenges and opportunities for the sector in the year ahead as it grapples with the changes brought about by the pandemic.

Are changes here to stay?

Institutions across the education spectrum have continued to adapt to the extraordinary challenges of the pandemic throughout 2021. Yes, there have been issues along the way, but reflecting objectively, the way the sector has dealt with the return to classrooms and campuses in a Covid-safe way following the migration to remote learning has been a fantastic effort.

Looking ahead to 2022, for me, there are several themes that stand out. First of all, we will begin to understand the extent to which the changes we’ve seen in education over the past two years are here to stay. How much of the technology that has been embraced by institutions has a permanent place in the education landscape? How much of a return to traditional teaching methods will we see over the longer term?

Generally speaking, the most likely answer is a hybrid approach, but none of us really knows exactly what that will look like yet. Every institution should be thinking about what a post-pandemic world looks like for them – assuming the omicron or other new variants don’t fundamentally alter the rules of the game even further. What seems clear is the need to invest in the right technology – and all of the associated technologists, infrastructure, kit, training and data protection measures needed to ensure institutions are using that technology to best effect.

Another thorny issue that should become clearer in 2022 is how much work needs to be done to deal with the educational gaps caused by Covid. Every age group’s learning has been disrupted in some way and the real impact of this is still unknown. How much extra support, for example, will students who achieved their centre-assessed A-levels grades in 2020 and 2021 need to get through their degree courses because of missed tuition at school?

Sustainability strategies

I think environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues will be ever-more important in the education sector in 2022 and beyond.

Firstly, climate change is the defining issue for the generation the sector is responsible for teaching, so it needs to get the emphasis right.

Secondly, institutions receive a lot of public money and the government has set itself some ambitious sustainability targets. It is likely to make that funding increasingly dependent on the ability of institutions to deliver on sustainability measures.

Many universities have of course signed up to being net zero by 2030, but do they really know how they’re going to achieve this? Coming up with answers will take up huge amounts of time and resources. All aspects of educational institutions’ thinking now needs to be viewed through a sustainability lens.

Funding the future

Ensuring the UK workforce has the right skills is a key part of this government’s stated goals post-Brexit. With reduced access to labour from the EU, it wants to create a high-skill, high-wage economy – and it has been true to its word in terms of investment in training.

The autumn 2021 Budget was probably the best in 10 years for education, with schools in line to get an extra £4.7 billion by 2024-25, and nearly £2 billion of new funding to help schools and FE colleges recover from the pandemic.

For higher education, we should get an announcement on whether the government intends to follow the recommendation of Phillip Augar’s Post-18 Education and Funding Review to reduce fees in England. Whatever the decision, HE is emerging from the pandemic with more cash at its disposal than it ever had before, thanks to robust enrolment numbers and some of the cost control measures introduced over the past two years as needs have been reprioritised.

However, HE institutions will need to draw on those cash reserves to make the necessary investments in technology and in their net zero strategies, particularly those with aging, energy-intensive campuses.

Further costs could arise from the need to re-invest in student accommodation, rather than outsourcing it. With many students having had less than satisfactory experiences with accommodation during the pandemic, some universities now see taking back control of accommodation and other student facilities as a way of positively impacting the student experience and enhancing their reputations.

So, we expect the next five-to-10-year period to be one of significant capital investment in the HE sector and may see the seeds of this in the year ahead.

Enduring positive forces

Given the demographics across the education sector, there is no danger of a lack of demand. Most age groups under the age of 18 will see rising numbers from now until 2031. On the face of it, that’s good news for the sector, but as with all factors effecting class numbers, institutions will need to plan and budget accordingly.

But as we start 2022, the UK education sector can take confidence from the fact that the pandemic has done little to undermine its position as a world leader. Higher education in this country remains second only to the US in terms of the top-ranked institutions, and in terms of its ability to attract international students.

As the UK’s fourth largest export industry, with huge strategic importance to UK plc and the apparent backing of a government committed to maintaining its global reputation and addressing skills shortages, I think there is plenty of cause for optimism about the education sector.

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