PublicationsSystematic reviewsMitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education
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This report is one of a series of four on mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – please see the project page for more.
Mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education

What do we want to know?

The COVID-19 health crisis has had short- and long-term harmful effects on all phases of education, their connection with each other, and with other areas of social, cultural, economic and political processes. This report aims to understand the research evidence on these harms in relation to higher education institutions and what we know about approaches to mitigation. 

The review questions are what is the research evidence on:

  1. the harms created by the COVID-19 pandemic in the higher education sector; 
  2. effective mitigations for these harms; 
  3. new opportunities and threats which may emerge to further enhance or limit the provision of higher education.

Who wants to know?

The UK Government’s Department for Education (DfE) commissioned this work following a recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The review will be useful to a range of communities including policy makers, educational practitioners, employers, and school students and their families. 

What did we find?

While the most immediate impacts typically relate to students – including pronounced negative effects on their mental health, learning and finances – other impacts are likely to be felt in time, such as the effects on research programmes generating new knowledge and on initiatives aimed at widening access to HE. Specifically, there is evidence for COVID-related impacts on higher education in the following areas:

  • Impacts on access to higher education
  • Impacts on students’ mental health and wellbeing
  • Impacts on the quality of learning
  • Impacts on future job and research prospects

Suggested mitigations include:

  • a mix of mentoring and support with university entrance applications to mitigate the effects of disruption on initiatives designed to widen participation and improve HE access for students from historically excluded groups 
  • Financial incentives or support – either on their own or combined with information, motivation and support 
  • Expanding provision of easily accessible, short-term interventions for mental health problems – including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), psychosocial support and mindfulness 
  • schemes that support graduates into work through partnerships with employers for students whose job opportunities have been reduced because of disruption to their courses. 
  • establishing a planning process to deal with future pandemics. 

What are the implications?

The review identified a range of harms to children beyond their learning. Addressing the children’s needs will require schools to be equipped with appropriate tools and resources to diagnose and plan for provide for these needs. 

The evidence from our review recognises the importance of increasing funding in particular to schools serving our most deprived communities and allowing them to spend the money according to the needs recognized in their context as most urgent.

How did we get these results?

This review is called a ‘rapid review’ to reflect the constraints in delivering a systematic review in a short space of time. The review pulls together evidence from 38 studies relating to harms to UK Higher Education (HE) during the pandemic, and 39 systematic reviews of existing evidence of potential mitigation strategies together with 13 empirical studies of responses to disasters and pandemics, notably floods, earthquakes, HIV and SARS.

This report should be cited as: Unterhalter E, Howell C, Vigurs C, France R, Candy B (2021) Mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Higher Education: a rapid evidence review. London: EPPI Centre, UCL Social Research Institute, University College London.

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