The Covid-19 Crisis and the Future of Tertiary Education: a Green Paper from the University of Greenwich

This paper was kindly contributed by Dr Jane Lethbridge and Professor Patrick Ainley from the University of Greenwich.

It is the fourth in our series titled ‘Manifestos for Change’, in which we are seeking forward-thinking responses to the present Covid-19 crisis, and the crisis of marketisation more generally. If you have created a similar proposal for your institution, and would like it to be included in this series, please email

This Green Paper is an indicative draft for discussion, a think-piece for staff and students at a university confronting the crisis of Tertiary Education with proposals presenting Green policy solutions.


Tertiary Education (TE) is in crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic impacting upon the cumulative effect of 30 years of marketization and privatisation that have increasingly restricted education to an instrument for allocation to the labour market. This paper aims to think through the nature of this crisis for TE in the context of three interlinked global crises: the climate/environmental crisis; the economic/financial crisis; and Covid-19.

The climate/environmental crisis is widely understood as an existential threat to the future of humanity. In most universities this has not yet led to rethinking their business models but it is clear they will have to abandon extensive recruitment of international students, the creation of international partnerships and property acquisition, which all depend on becoming resource-intensive, global corporations.

Mounting student debt has turned students into consumers. Outsourcing facilities management, catering and cleaning services provided by multinational companies using low-paid staff  is further evidence of the failure of private sector and market-led solutions. Teaching too is increasingly contracted out, though private F&HIs have not expanded as successive governments intended, mainly due to questions of quality over which higher education retains a monopoly of recognition. This may be difficult to maintain with the growing pressure towards virtualised ‘platform institutions’.

The Covid-19 crisis originating in the environmental crisis has widened fractures in society. Educational selection from the earliest ages divides young people in competing schools and colleges by academic exams demonstrating more or less expensively acquired cultural capital for entry to the hierarchy of snobbery, sexism and racism that universities often seem to present. Expected mass unemployment faces the sector with having to redefine its purpose during a major economic and social crisis.

The end of educational expansion

Covid-19 has burst the bubble of market-led higher education expansion funded by fee/loans with a period of severe retraction now anticipated. Government expects VCs to put their houses in order by closing and merging courses and institutions, turning even larger parts of HE into FE with ‘technical universities’ limited to allegedly ‘vocational’ subjects on the one hand and research institutes removed from teaching but devoted to industry and commerce on the other. When rationalisation does not sufficiently meet government’s expectations for closures and mergers of universities in a more differentiated hierarchy with variable fees by course and institution, a rationalising body will predictably be established to sort out the survivors. This would obviate market regulation. Perhaps the up-coming white paper proposing to ‘renationalise’ FE colleges presages this future for HE.

However, we should not aim to return to a normality in which many young people see themselves pressurised to ‘go to uni or die’, running up a down-escalator of devalued qualifications as passports to supposedly secure semi-professions. The search for alternatives is seen in the demand for apprenticeships – especially those few that are paid and offer higher level certificates plus guaranteed employment on completion. Yet most employers do not need apprentices and, if they do, prefer to train them themselves or to take already qualified graduates. This because, along with the decline in professional preparation at university, many skilled trades – like many knowledgeable professions – have been routinised, automated and outsourced in what is a predominantly service economy. This ‘multiskilling’ undercuts both specialised trade training that historically took place on day-release to FE and also professional education in HE. 

Public understanding, or at least acceptance, of the role of Tertiary learning was therefore put in question. Moreover, the notion of an academic vocation has also been lost even to some of its practitioners, save perhaps in the most prestigious antique institutions and their associated research centres. Marketisation has encouraged super-salaries at the top of UK universities alongside the vast expansion in fractional, temporary, hourly-paid or even zero-hours contracts at the bottom. Under the domination of global financial capital presaged by Brexit, ‘trickle down’ economics will again fail to generate growth, especially if austerity is re-imposed.


Real prospects for economic development could be linked to regional, sub-regional and local learning infrastuctures. These would connect Primary and Secondary schooling to continuing Tertiary level further and higher adult and community education and training where adjacent institutions could be coordinated to address inherited redundancies and inequities, such as those between pre- and post-1992 foundations. There should be local plans to convert HEIs that fail financially into new educational centres as a part of the developing national learning infrastructure to address social inequalities. Progression from compulsory education should be marked by an entitlement to free lifelong learning as part of the assumption of citizenship at 18. This entitlement need not be taken immediately or full-time as other opportunities may be available both in and out of employment. Studying full- or part-time whilst living at home and in or out of employment will then be accepted as normal as in mainland Europe, where most students apply to their local university though this does not exclude residence at specialised courses further afield. To facilitate progression support for FE must be maintained alongside support for HE.

Until entitlement to lifelong learning is introduced, tuition fees should be reduced moving from fees-based income to a central teaching grant. This is especially necessary with the temporary move to on-line teaching, which in general does not improve the quality of learning but which students are expected to continue paying full-cost fees for. The costs of subsidising and maintaining Tertiary institutions will be offset by those who choose to exercise their entitlement to lifelong learning later in life. Universities will not then remain so ‘front-loaded’ by young entrants as they have become but will be open to students of all ages. Not that all students would undertake full-time degree courses – many might enjoy part-time recreations such as dance, drama, music, sports and other activities that used to be provided by adult education institutes and FE colleges as well as on HE extra-mural courses.

Combining their teaching with their research, scholarship, experiment and creation is an ideal still upheld by many academics. Teaching should thus be integrated with practice as it is in apprenticeship as the model of an academic vocation with a pedagogy of lifelong learning that is more research-, or rather, practice-led but by the student/trainee/apprentice, not the teacher. Although informed by MOOC-type courses depending on subject and level of learning, reading still remains the key undergraduate activity for scholarly courses, just as experiment, practice and creative endeavours are the core of lab- and studio-based studies in art, science and technology. These must be preserved since they cannot be practised virtually, despite the problems of social distancing and hygiene which necessitate an increased commitment of equipment and technical, as well as pedagogic, support that will also be called for in libraries.

Ideally, specialisation towards the development of a further and/or higher expertise would be undertaken on the basis of a more general Secondary schooling that might function less as the gigantic social sorting machine that schools have become. In comparison, in what can be called traditional FE it was part of lecturers’ occupational identities that colleges – unlike schools – ‘never failed anyone’ and  – unlike universities – ‘never turned anyone away’ but found something for all applicants with courses from special needs to post-graduate. It is to this open model of provision that Tertiary Education should aspire to return.


Transformational change requires far-reaching innovation so that the move to sustainability will fundamentally alter the nature of Tertiary Education. This calls for greater social inclusion and full participation in education and training programmes for all adults. In such a transition, TE should be flexible enough to meet educational demands from new and adaptive industries, local communities and others, including the local and national state. If the economy is no longer focused on engrossing the domestic production of commodities but upon sustainable production, this entails new ways of working that will often be locally-/regionally-based.

Several Green Plans have been proposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to the wider climate crisis. TE needs to deliver new courses that can be offered in support of these recommendations requiring workers qualified in new skills and with the knowledge to deliver carbon-neutral living. The creation of resilient infrastructure will also generate new types of employment, recognising the productive roles of key workers in a new professionalism based upon a more general and less academic schooling to develop democratic expertise across and also within academic/vocational specialisms.

The first task facing universities and colleges is therefore to build a campaign that promotes Tertiary Education as a public good understandable to all ‘stakeholders’ – students, parents and employers. Scientific experts and researchers have played key roles in combating Covid-19 making it easier to promote higher education as socially valuable. This should be facilitated from national through regional/sub-regional to local learning infrastructures integrating Primary and Secondary schools with the entitlement to free lifelong, full- or part-time, adult and community, further and higher Tertiary Education and training in and/or out of employment.

Some practical strategies

To stimulate TE contributions to a green and digital future, some questions for individual institutions are posed below.

1. What are the training/education needs of future local/regional economies?

1.1.How are local industries and services, both public and private, affected by the aftermath of Covid-19 and by proposals for green transformation?

1.2.What are current local levels of employment/unemployment in terms of age, gender, BAME, disability?

1.3.What are the local and regional economic development strategies for addressing green, digital and ageing population needs and how can they be adapted to and addressed by TE?

2. How to build new coalitions and partnerships 

2.1. What are the existing patterns of provision for Post-Compulsory Education and Training (PCET) in the locality/sub-region?

2.2. What is the nature of partnership working between PCET institutions, local authorities, private and not-for-profit sectors and community groups?

2.3. Are there any successful initiatives?

2.4. Are there opportunities to build coalitions to plan for the future?

3. Where are the needs and possibilities for education and training?

3.1. Covid -19 has made apparent the urgency of planning and coordinating health services.

3.2 With an aging population, social care must become a public service with a professionalised and adequately remunerated workforce. TE can facilitate the education and training required. 

3.3 Likewise in Primary and Secondary Education, a backlog of pupil development needs remediation while reforms to the content as well as the form of exam-based curricula can be stimulated by humanities and social sciences.

3.4.Making the existing housing stock more energy efficient requires training with the development of new expertise by architecture, planning and surveying departments.

3.5 Covid-19 has highlighted the size of the low paid workforce which provides basic public services. The recognition of the value of this expertise presents opportunities for new courses allowing key workers to develop their skills and improve their terms and conditions of employment, helping them to move into new jobs where there are skills shortages as part of their career progression.

3.6 Some manufacturing companies have changed production to meet demands for PPE under Covid. Sustained by business and engineering faculties they could be re-orientated to make other essential products.

3.7 Many digital technology strategies have training implications to which educational institutions already teaching and researching in this area can contribute.

3.8 Developing local food supply chains will be strained post-Brexit and will need support from locally based micro-enterprises also requiring technical expertise.

3.9 There also will be opportunities for local entrepreneurship such as many business schools already provide but strengthened by a focus on green, digital and inclusive strategies.

These opportunities, including those for culture and recreation, will vary according to locality but all can build on existing provision within TE affording access to further and higher education and training as part of popular entitlement to free lifelong learning.

To read and download the full, 5000 word version of this paper, please click here.