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COVID-19 and sustainability in higher education

Afzal Sayed Munna

SUSTAINABILITY is a lifestyle designed for permanence (Turner, 2010). Sustainability is a comparatively simpler idea, which can be explained in purely descriptive terms as the capacity of any given system to exist and reproduce on a long-term basis. Development adds a value judgement by implying a desired evolution of human society (Borowy, 2014).

The notion of sustainable development was introduced into the political agenda by the World Commission on Environment and Development through its report (WCED, 1987), also called the Brundtland Report. The report does not provide a precise definition of sustainable development, but this quote summarises the concept as: “Sustainable Development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987, p. 43).

The concept of “quality of life” is thus embedded into the process of sustainable development, which includes the importance of health, culture and nature.The principles of sustainability are defined as being made up of three pillars: the economy, society and the environment.

Trying to implement sustainability in higher education challenges us to establish new sets of relationships – with our students, with each other, with what we learn and with ourselves. As a higher education business lecturer, I always believed a deep satisfaction from teamwork and a shared engagement with purposeful and meaningful action can help overcome discouragement and maintain the inclusive momentum

Our higher education is our future. It is about preparing our nations and peoples for better lives and about increasing their ability to strengthen their communities through art, research, technology, innovation and entrepreneurial activities. Colleges and universities exist to contribute to a better world where there is less hunger, less disease, more prosperity, more joy, more freedom and more love (Barlett and Chase, 2013).




I have slightly deviated from considering the COVID-19 by explaining the concept of sustainability. I had been intending to consider stability instead of sustainability, but I decided to choose sustainability as it covers a wider perspective in many ways.

I was reading and reviewing the draft proposal from Universities UK in which they proposed that the Government take immediate action to help the universities during this unprecedented time. The draft highlighted how the Government is being asked provide assistance in order to help maintain stability in the higher education sector.

For those who are not very familiar with Universities UK, let me provide a brief background. Its roots lie in the 19th century, when informal meetings took place involving the vice chancellors of a number of universities and principals of university colleges. In 1918 the first formal consultative meeting of all 22 vice chancellors was held, and in 1930 vice chancellors agreed to formalise the arrangements, concluding that, “it is desirable in the common interests of the United Kingdom to constitute a Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) for purposes of mutual consultation.”

On 1st December 2000, the CVCP was renamed Universities UK.  For over 90 years Universities UK, and its predecessor organisations, have spoken out in support of universities and the higher education sector, seeking to influence and create policy, and to provide an environment in which member institutions can flourish. Universities UK remains the essential voice of our universities – supporting their autonomy and celebrating their diversity.

Their current request to the Government is for financial aid to maintain the stability of higher education institutions following COVID-19. It should be noted that universities generate more than £95 billion for the UK economy and provide over 940,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Universities also develop highly skilled people who drive UK and global business productivity.

Universities and higher education providers provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds through access to improved life chances – driving social mobility and improving the quality of life. They are conducting cutting-edge, high impact research that addresses local and global challenges (including COVID-19).

Our higher education institutions are fuelling economic growth through job creation, research and innovation, attracting inward investment, supply chains and providing a multiplier effect on local economies and, last but not least, creating civic leadership and impact through supporting local communities and businesses, providing services and facilities and driving regeneration.

COVID-19 has created an immense risk that the higher education sector will no longer have the capacity or ability to deliver quality education and provide the required facilities to our students and staff. Without appropriate investment from the Government it is absolutely impossible to maintain the sustainability of higher education.

Universities UK’s report highlighted few major immediate financial factors which will have an impact in the 2019-2020 academic year, including loss of income from residential accommodation, catering and conferences. Income from activities in the Easter and summer vacations amounted £790 million in the UK.

The report also highlighted how a significant fall in international students and a rise in undergraduate deferrals are likely to risk the stability of higher education finances in the 2020-2021 academic year. The report predicted that a 100% fall in fee income from international (Non-EU and EU) students would result in a £6.9 billion loss of income to the UK higher education sector (Universities UK, April 2020).

There is no doubt that the financial impact on the sector will be huge and thus a consensus is required on how we can provide a sustainable solution to see us through to the post-virus time. The initial proposal, which needs immediate attention, includes introducing a flexible visa system; stabilising the demand from EU students; re-profiling tuition fee payments from the Student Loans Company to institutions in 2020-2021; re-profiling funding allocations; providing bridging loans. UK universities also need urgent confirmation that they are fully eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Scheme and the COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility.

Finally, the option of providing a transformation fund to support universities over the next two to three years should be considered. This would help them reshape and consolidate through federations and partnerships or mergers with other higher education institutions, further education colleges or private providers. This transformation fund would support some universities to undertake significant change to achieve longer-term sustainability (not just short-term stability) and ensure high quality provision of skills to meet economic needs.

The challenges are mounting, and thus a co-ordinated plan is needed to maintain capacity and enable UK universities to make a swift recovery. The Government should act now – before the entire higher education sector collapses..

Afzal Sayed Munna is a lecturer, Module Leader and Programme Co-ordinator, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, London and UNICAF University, Ireland. He is also the Vice Chair of Newham and Barking & Dagenham Liberal Democrats.

For more information about Universities UK, go to:

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Corona & class: Part 1 – how a virus divided society
Boris or Biggs: who’s right on return to school?

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