Challenges and opportunities for students and learners

Written by Matt Robers FCMI CMgr Monday 10 August 2020
Every economic crisis brings both deep challenges and opportunities for change – what does this look like for those studying or in full-time education?
Student learning in library with piles of books

Unfortunately, this very unusual crisis brings particular problems for students and learners, as they find themselves facing changing lockdown restrictions and radically different approaches to learning. They may end up feeling that they’re simply at the mercy of events.

Equally, though, top talent has never been more important, with forecasts suggesting that we’re facing a long, drawn-out economic recovery, slowed by the UK’s well-documented skills deficit. Empowered students could be the answer to our prayers.

A simple question, then: what does it take to turn this pandemic from a crisis to an opportunity for students and learners? As part of CMI’s ‘Better Managers Briefing’ on 7 August, we put that question to Sean Williams, CEO of training provider Corndel, and Professor Jane Harrington, vice chancellor of the University of Greenwich.

Saving the lost generation

Both Jane and Sean agree that we must not downplay the challenges. With some forecasts suggesting that there will be four million people unemployed by the end of the year amid the destruction of some familiar industries, the biggest challenge may lie in helping people move from old to new sectors.

“As the economy starts to recover, we're going to need people with high levels of skills, and it would be an absolute mistake if we forgot that and lost an entire generation through this pandemic. We need to work just as hard at getting students and learners into meaningful employment as we do at encouraging them to go university or college,” says Jane.

“However, the pandemic has also taught us to reprioritise and place greater emphasis on professions such as paramedics and wider areas such as science and technology. We are seeing increased applications in these areas and we have opportunities to really leverage that.

“We have also learned that working together is better than working alone. For us, that means working with councils and local enterprise partners, but also with private providers, FE colleges and other HE institutions. If we are really going to come out of this crisis, we need to do it together.”

Seeking more flexible learning models

The pandemic has upended the dreams of students and learners expecting an on-campus experience at college or university. “We shouldn't underestimate the challenges that young people have had,” Jane says. “They’ve had their education completely turned on its head. My advice is that they have a look at what flexibility there is in the offering they’re considering. Does it have a flexible accommodation offer? Support for their mental health? Flexible access to materials? What is the online provision like? How is the institution adapting the overall student experience? Is there going to be social space for you? Are there going to be alternative activities? This next academic year is going to feel different, but there are other ways that you can foster identity and community.”

Is online-only learning the future?

The pandemic has led to a boom in online learning courses and materials. Are we heading for a world where students and learners do 100% of their learning online? Sean certainly doesn’t think so.

“I don’t believe in using e-learning only at all,” says Sean. “No one tells you that they remember a great textbook from school; people remember great teachers. People learn best from people and the human connection. Technology like Zoom and YouTube is there to connect tutors, trainers, teachers, coaches and mentors with students. Online-only learning might work for a very small number of very smart, very self-motivated students, but the majority of us need a bit more support.”

Jane agrees. “I think learning needs community and identity, and I think we’re more likely to see a blended approach,” she says. “The textbook and lecture content we can put online, but it is critical that there are opportunities for students to come together to discuss the content, work through case studies and learn through practical laboratories and simulations. We have been working on how we can continue to provide those learning experiences somehow, even if we have a second lockdown, without our students being negatively affected.”

Sustainability and diversity through adversity

There are some potential upsides to come out of this turbulent year, not least making the economic recovery a truly sustainable one and increasing the diversity in our workforce.

“An institution like ours can contribute negatively or positively to sustainability in terms of its campuses and its buildings, and we ensure responsibility is shared across the institution,” says Jane. “For example, our student union told us that they were very unhappy about the buses that we were using to transport them from Medway campus to Greenwich. We now have two electric buses as a result.”

On its Medway campus, the University of Greenwich hosts the Natural Resources Institute, which is launching a master's degree in climate change next year. “It is following the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which are embedded in everything the Institute does. It’s not just about the buildings and the physical side – it's about the teaching, the research and the actions that the students take alongside the staff. Young people will not accept us not taking this seriously. They will challenge us to act more quickly and faster than we have done historically.”

Even before this health crisis, 90% of Corndel’s staff were working from home, which has helped to drive greater gender diversity: 70% of staff are women, and the majority of staff are working parents. “We offer a hyper-flexible, hyper-empowered environment where you can choose when and where you do your work. That actually disproportionately benefits some groups who've been disproportionately disadvantaged in the past by the nine-to-five model,” says Sean.

“We also set up a diversity board in response to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, which deeply affected a lot of our students and staff. Part of that board’s remit is to get more data on which groups are underrepresented among our students, staff and senior management team – and then to come up with practical answers and tangible action.”

Preparing our teams for a 'new normal'

In these volatile times, how should managers prioritise both their own professional development and that of their teams? With many staff furloughed at present, this is a great opportunity to upskill them so that they can come back with the new skills they need, particularly in management and technology, says Sean. “They’re the two critical skills, in my opinion. We see a particular intersection between managers needing to understand data and artificial intelligence,” he adds.

Jane has been leading a higher and further education recovery group that is trying to understand what skills are needed. “I would completely concur with what Sean – it’s enterprise and digital skills that come up time and time again. Now is a real opportunity for people to upskill and reskill and adapt,” she says.

“We need to make sure that we provide very accessible short courses that are available at whatever level is needed. I would also put emphasis on looking after our workers’ physical and mental health. We need to make sure that our workforce is resilient and that they are as confident as they can be to come back into the workplace.”

You can watch the discussion in full here. Why not tune into this Friday’s live talk too?

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