Improving University Education in Light of Covid-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic upending the world of higher education, how can university students remain engaged with their learning? This report examines the impact of COVID-19 on undergraduate students in Scotland, with a particular focus on academic education and communication. Looking forward, it also details recommendations to support universities with mitigating the consequences of the pandemic for students.



University of Edinburgh, Education


Luiza de Assumpção Costa

Lydia Jennings

Laura McLay

Eilidh McNaughton

Kirsty Vass Payne

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world of higher education. As the UK went into lockdown, in March 2020 approximately 300,000 students at universities in Scotland (Scottish Funding Council, 2019)were abruptly sent home, whether in the UK or abroad, to slow the spread of the virus. Universities closed all in-person teaching and facilities, and students and staff had to move to working off campus for the remaining monthsof the 2019-2020 academic year. This caused major disruptions to all aspects of the university student experience,including academic learning, societies, sports and social activities. Universities were unprepared to deal with a crisis on this scale and were forced to adapt quickly to the changing circumstances.

This report therefore examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on undergraduate students at university in Scotland in two key aspects of their university experience. Firstly, their academic education which comprises of delivery of classes, access to academic resources and facilities, and assessments. Our research has shown that student and staff experiences have varied depending on their university and subject department, and whether they could move online. However, it is clear that overall, there has been a significant impact on students’ academic education, with a lack of motivation and engagement worrying staff and students (Displayed in our survey, published online 2020). It is also important to note that during this pandemic, barriers to learning have been unique to every individual students’ personal situation. Secondly, the platforms used by universities to communicate decisions to students in the final semester of the academic year 2019-2020, and decisions regarding how the university experience will take place in the upcoming academic year. Overwhelmingly students state that email is their preferred way to receive communications from their university. Yet many students

have felt confused or uninformed about their studies due to miscommunication and lack of updates (Displayed in our survey, published 2020).

With the pandemic ongoing at the time of press and continually changing government guidance for universities, the policy field for the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year is uncertain. Recommendations are therefore broken down into a two-tiered structure. Short-term recommendations are proposed for the upcoming academic year, which will likely involve elements of online learning as the pandemic continues. Long-term recommendations are focused on improving the university experience in these two areas post-pandemic.

  1. Academic Education

  2. Short-Term Recommendations: Evaluation of online teaching tools used and increased training and support for students and staff to encourage user familiarity.

  3. Long-Term Recommendations: Transition back to an in-person university education and enhance the in-person learning experience through relevant technology.

  4. Communication

  5. Short-Term Recommendations: Improve communication with students through a communication plan focusing on the regularity, consistency, relevancy and detail of information communicated.

  6. Long-Term Recommendations: Improve internal communications within different levels of university to ensure consistency of information.

We hope that by presenting our findings and policy considerations in this report we will be able to bring attention to higher education reform in Scotland. Having highlighted two key areas in need of reform, this policy brief can be used as a starting point to build relationships with gatekeepers in political and educational institutions to effect change.