As universities begin opening their doors it is difficult to comprehend the challenges they will face this academic year. What actions can universities take to navigate through 2020/21 and beyond?

Still reeling from the fallout of the A-level results crisis, universities are beginning to open their doors (at least virtually!) and welcome some students back onto campus, with many universities rolling out new virtual teaching and learning capabilities.

This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging periods universities have ever faced. The response to the coronavirus pandemic touches upon almost every aspect of a university's make-up and operation, and will be a factor in determining universities' fortunes this academic year.

Funding gap and cost reduction

As global institutions with a strong international student base, the coronavirus pandemic leaves universities with a question mark over where its international cohort will come from this academic year. Coupled with domestic deferrals, some universities are warning that a fall in revenue is forecast for the year 2020/21, as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic. The London School of Economics has predicted that universities will suffer a £2.6 billion shortfall in this academic year.

Following the summer chaos on university places, universities may opt to take a more cautious and conservative approach when it comes to managing their finances. A drop in the number of international students will increase the financial strain on universities as there will be a drop in the tuition fees collected and also in the income generated from student accommodation. As a result of the fall in revenue some universities are having to consider the possibility of staff redundancies. For example, the University of East London has informed 350 of its employees that their jobs may be at risk as it is required to make £16 million savings in the year 2020/21. Whilst not only being detrimental for the individual employees affected, staffing cuts will have knock-on implications on the quality of teaching, the quality of support that can be available to students and also the universities research capability.

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Universities are under increasing pressure to adapt the way in which they deliver teaching to their students. In many cases the online teaching platforms have already been implemented and the benefits of blended learning are starting to be felt. But with many universities intending to continue some group sessions in-person, smaller class sizes are required in order to adhere to social distancing. This is likely to require universities to extend teaching hours into evenings and weekends, and may see lecturers and tutors donning masks, visors and in some cases standing behind large Perspex screens. Whilst this seems the obvious response in order to at least maintain, and hopefully improve student experience, universities need to be mindful of and consider the physical and mental well-being of its teaching and academic staff. Staff safety is a priority, however, the impact on mental health cannot be underestimated.

The challenge for universities will be how to balance requiring so much more from its staff against the funding pressures and potential need for staff redundancies.

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Universities are embarking on an extremely tumultuous academic year and there is no way of knowing how the lockdown situation is going to progress (or regress!) and what the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be.