Two things strike me about how global higher education is returning to what looks like normal after two years of pandemic lockdowns, travel restrictions and doing virtually everything online.

The first is that the so-called ‘grown-ups’ in the room when it comes to international higher education, certainly in Western nations like the United Kingdom and United States, are rushing back to their old favourite habits of jumping on planes to jet off to some conference in Denver, Colorado, or Barcelona in Spain to meet en masse with their international soulmates.

Many university academics and other staff are only too willing to put their trust in political leaders and bosses who want us to forget about Covid-19 and throw away our face-masks and start mingling again. To be fair they are only following what the likes of British Tory “Party” prime minister Boris Johnson appears to have been doing throughout the pandemic.

What about ending ‘flying addiction’?

But hang on a moment, didn’t we all solemnly pledge to cut our carbon footprints and stop the global higher education flying addiction at the beginning and height of the coronavirus lockdowns?

Didn’t we recognise that jetting across the world to encourage other (younger) people to fly half-way round the world for their higher education was producing megatons of carbon dioxide?

Wasn’t it only two years ago that we applauded the likes of Ailsa Lamont, the Australian-based co-founder of the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE), for pointing out that if international higher education wants to help deliver the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we should use the technology at our disposal to meet and work together to save the planet and end what she called “higher education’s obsession with flying”.

Ailsa Lamont, founder of CANIE

See my report from the 2020 UK International Higher Education Forum (IHEF), an event which was switched online at the last minute in March 2020, if you need a refresher.

That was way back then, and now with our memories of relying on Zoom or Teams to hold virtual meetings fading fast, many of  the ‘grown-ups’ in higher education are clamouring to meet face-to-face again and enjoy a welcome dinner and chance to catch-up on all the gossip and, of course, the end of conference disco.

I’ve tried to report on several recent international conference that were supposed to be ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ and some organisers seem so focused on dealing with the in-person side of organising big events that anyone watching online can feel they are a second-class delegates. With one un-named international conference, I completely missed the opening session and had to report on other sessions several days after they took place when they were posted on YouTube.

Not all events are like this and the World Conference on Research Integrity held in Cape Town, South Africa, was a joy to cover with speakers presenting and on-line from counties where Covid travel restrictions still apply.

Students and the ‘scarcity effect’

But what about the ‘youngsters’ in the room, or shall we call them students?

Here, looking at different data used for the 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey, it is not so clear that students want to cram themselves into a lecture theatre on a wet weekday morning.

Many would prefer appear to catch-up with the lecture on YouTube later and keep that valuable part-time job that is helping them survive the cost of living crisis and avoid getting COVID-19, or catching it for a second-time. 

As I reported for University World News on 9 June, 2022, only 27% of student respondents felt they were getting value for money in 2021 from their university experience in the UK at the height of the pandemic. 

And despite claims by HEPI  of a “bounce back” when restrictions were lifted, only 35% of UK respondents this year said they were getting value for money, with the comparative figure for international students being 36%.

The results of the 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and AdvanceHE chimed with another global survey, which Times Higher Education reported on 9 June 2022. This found far fewer students turning up and engaging in class.

Lower numbers in lecture theatres

Three-quarters of academics said they had seen lower numbers of students turning up to lecturers since COVID-19 restrictions were eased and among those turning up, engagement is worse than before the pandemic.

From Times Higher Education global survey

In a comment piece for Times Higher online on 10 June, 2022, titled Psychology explains why students aren’t flocking back to campus, Dr Paul Penn, a senior lecturer at the University of East London, said it was all down to what was known as the ‘scarcity effect’.

When campus-based teaching was not available, students suddenly lost something they considered highly valuable but were still asked to pay the same fees and put the same amount of time, effort and emotion into their studies. 

Many students expressed their unhappiness and universities interpreted this as reflecting student preference for on-campus delivery “without considering the role that scarcity and loss aversion”. 

Universities thought disaffection “would rebound into contentment, or even joy, when campus-based delivery was reinstated,” said Dr Penn.

But motivated partly by government threats of fines if they kept their teaching online, face-to-face teaching became abundant once again – and the scarcity value was gone!

The more strident universities became about returning to campus, the more student’s valued remote delivery increased, according to Dr Penn. 

Students re-orientated their lives 

For over two years students had adapted to studying remotely and re-orientated their lives. 

Now they faced losing things that had become valuable, such as less travelling, more time with family and “not having their savings decimated by regular trips to the campus branch of Costa Coffee”, said Dr Penn, who reminded us that “losses are felt more keenly than equivalent gains.” 

So, what to make of the data?

It would appear there is a divergence opening up between students and staff in the value of face-to-face and online teaching.

As I was finishing this blog, another survey dropped into my inbox. This one from from Velocity Global in the United States which claims US higher education students “want to work remotely, balance their ‘personal’ and ‘work’ lives, and prioritise flexibility and mental well-being” and suggesting “the old way of doing business is over”.

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic and the switch to more flexible ways of learning during the pandemic will have a much more long lasting impact on the world of work.

We know there are a lot of ‘known-unknowns’ knocking around and we need to start pulling together all the data, but it would appear that the old image of graduating joining a company, working 9 to 5 five-days-a-week, and then retiring on a nice pension will be replaced by hopping from one job to another, freelancing on the side and working from home or a local hub much of the time.

Is higher education preparing the next generation for this new way of approaching the world of work or is it stuck in some old-world model that is rapidly becoming out of date?