Coronavirus (COVID-19) higher education, further education and community learning and development: wider harms

This paper considers the indirect, wider harms of the pandemic on students, learners and staff within the Further Education, Higher Education and Community Learning and Development sectors from the perspective of stakeholders and drawing on the findings or relevant reports relating to these sectors.

7. Ongoing Adaptation

The pandemic has been with us for over two years and attention is turning to managing the virus on a longer term basis while keeping the level of infections as low as possible. Adaptation approaches should alleviate the impact of the virus, but it is important for the HE/FE/CLD sectors to consider the wider harms outlined above and consider how addressing these, with support from other organisations, can help with recovery.

University, college and CLD responses to the challenges posed by the pandemic, have led to some positive impacts on educational delivery as the sector has quickly adapted to a changing environment. These positive developments should be noted by the sector and used to inform future planning and delivery.

During the pandemic, university representatives indicated that institutions have collaborated well with professional bodies, other institutions and students in decision-making to minimise Covid-19 impacts on students and maximise safety. This has led to a general improvement in communication with students as well as improved planning and sharing of experiences within the sector, within subject areas, and with Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs). Union representatives have also identified that there is an opportunity to collaborate to further develop sector wide policies on mental health, for example. It is important to retain this level of collaboration in order to maintain high levels of adherence to Covid-safe measures in order to avoid further protective measures needing to be introduced that could have the potential to have a significant negative impact on the wider harms.

University representatives reported that some positive effects and learning from the Covid-19 pandemic are summarised in the Scottish sector learning from the Covid-19 pandemic report (21). e.g. working with students to improve communication and involving them in planning and decision-making. This has helped inform decision making on responding to challenging issues faced by students. Examples of this include the no-detriment policies (22) in summer 2020, and the ongoing assessment support measures during the 2020-21 academic year, for which many universities had to substantially rewrite their assessment regulations in light of the requirements of Professional Bodies. It is important for institutions to share best practice and the developments of new policies via QAA’s Enhancement Theme and institution led projects including building student communities online, addressing digital poverty and using technology in learning, student transition points, resilience and developing student peer-to-peer initiatives.

College and university representatives reported that upgraded technology, and staff and student online skills development was accelerated by the pandemic. These advances offer an opportunity to capitalise on this rapid development of online learning provision, in order to shape and improve future educational delivery. Suitable development training sessions and online resources have been created within institutions and shared across the sector. So to have pedagogical principles and frameworks for good educational practice online. Union representatives have added that provision of digital training and digital support for staff needs to be consistent across institutions and further support with captioning would be welcome. Union representatives also made the point that training for managers to support cultural change as a result of these adaptations was also welcome. They reported that during the pandemic, there has been reduced demands on the sector from some organisations, such as the Scottish Funding Council, which is a positive development.

College and University representatives agree that good practice and innovations in online and blended learning should be retained and included in future curriculum planning informing future practice in teaching, learning and assessment. This could include digital alternatives to practical training and assessment to enhance the educational offer to students. In some cases, innovations had evolved from students teaching staff about technology.

CLD representatives reported that there have been positive effects in terms of the provision of online activities, as some learners participate in these who may not have engaged face-to-face. Learners with disabilities as well as those undertaking ESOL courses are among those who have benefitted.

Given the importance of social interactions, student representatives indicated that facilitating safe, socially distanced, in-person student gatherings through the procurement of larger venues may be beneficial as part of future planning.

There has been high vaccine uptake among the student population as well as staff, and institutions have supported and encouraged this. The latest Public Health Scotland data shows that 83% of individuals aged 17-21yrs have had their first vaccine, 73% have had their second vaccine and 64% of eligible 17-21 year olds have had their booster vaccine. Antibody rates for 16-25 year olds in Scotland are estimated to be 91% (23). Student representatives reported that having vaccine buses or clinics on campus could be beneficial to increase vaccine and booster uptake further. This and other protective measures such as testing, where high levels of adherence are maintained, will be key to ensuring Covid-safe environments that are resilient to further pandemic shocks.



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