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Is the prospect of university offering inspiration?

shot of person stood at top of a set of stairs. You can only see their trainers, trousers and bottom of their t-shirt. They are paused as if deciding to go up the next set of stairs.

While the typical recruitment cycle and format of study has changed little in recent history, the pandemic definitely showed students that universities adapt and evolve when they need to. But after a turbulent three years, for students and institutions alike, what will the coming year bring to help students right now and prepare them for what’s next?

I caught up with Isobelle Panton, Director of Student Recruitment and International at University Academy 92 and Jim Tudor, Founder of Future Index, to discuss the disruption and inspiration within the higher education sector.

“I try and not be too preachy about how disruptive we are because I recognise other, more established institutions probably have more levels of decision making and heritage to battle with” explains Isobelle.

“If someone were to build the ideal institution today, post Covid, this is how they would do it, because we have the agility and dynamism needed to adapt to the needs to the workforce and needs of all the people who want to study here” she adds.

“Higher education is being hit by a whole myriad of forces and it’s a tough job to change when you have new providers upping their game, both within and outside of the sector” says Jim.

“Lockdown created greater awareness about accessibility, affordability and the mental health challenge. The fact is, Universities have to deal with all of these things, it becomes a bigger change.

“I think there are many times we have seen how quickly they have mobilised, maybe when forced to like lockdown.”

But is perception of how adaptable institutions are the issue?

“When it comes to ongoing change that’s needed, I think there is a problem with structure and complexity. With leadership” says Jim.

I think there is a perception that universities are a bit like oil tankers and hard to turn around. I stress that is a perception, because it can be done. And I also think there are things that universities have and do that become quite enormous to try and change that might on the outside seem something that sounds easy to change.”

What that looks like for students, in terms of the course structure being built for them today, looks very different, as Isobelle explains.

“Our students’ study one module at a time, so that they can focus on one subject area. It means they are assessed at the end of that block and the assessment is not an exam, or a pressure test, instead it might be a live brief set by industry, marked by someone from Manchester United, so they get insight in a real time way from the world of work.”

“Students are either ‘am’ students or ‘pm’ students. So, they study 9-1 or 2-6 so that they can make regular time for volunteering, caring responsibilities, part time work, or for sport. It allows students to seek meaningful employment to help with their preparedness for work. We also offer entry at 6 times during the year rather than just once.”

And in terms of how you engage students following such a turbulent recent past and current crisis, how do you offer inspiration?

“It is hectic, but I think hectic is fairly normal for a lot of us now” says Jim.

“We talk to universities a lot about how they are going to talk to students. There’s a lot of talk about crisis at the moment, and think about the impact that has on young people. Talking about the opportunities, the optimism is important. The fact is, we do need jobs for the future, there is a skills gap, there are big problems to solve, so there is a life of opportunities ahead. Talking in that way about the potential, the optimism. I think its quite inspiring” he adds.

The way in which institutions can then speak with students about what a course and university more broadly can offer, plays a part in how uni’s cut through the generic education messaging.

“We need to bottom out any assumptions around debt and finance in regards to the cost of living of being a student and the value for money of a degree. I think for years we’ve relied on the fact that university is the path and therefore we get inbound applications as a result” says Isobelle.

“We need to start from scratch. Much of we do within our community is demystifying debt, breaking that cost down per day and what you get… we articulate the opportunities you get when you graduate by salary. And while some people may find that crass to talk about money and graduate outcomes in those terms, now, more than ever, that end goal has become even more important.”

You can listen to Isobelle’s conversation on the Hear It Podcast here and Jim’s here. Lots of insight and examples from both in the show notes.

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