The future of student work

Over night, due to the pandemic, 1.6 billion students across the world were temporarily out of education in March. To add to this disaster the HE sector in the UK spends less than 3% on digital infrastructure (this is far behind many other sectors). What impact has this had on the future of the University? Mark Andrews from Adobe recently said “we are in an unplanned experiment which has accelerated discussions…to deliver good student experience”.

On Tuesday 26th June I attended a panel run by the Guardian called the Future of the University with colleagues from IFES and student workers across Europe. The panel looked at some key questions surrounding the future of the University. We wanted start thinking through the implications of university post COVID19 on our vision, mission and values.

This blog post looks to summarise and highlight some of our findings. I’d love to invite you to respond with your comments about the future of student work. This more than any other time is the time to work together, to listen to each other and to learn from one another.

We joined the call to listen to the trends and begin to process what might we as student workers need to stop doing, continue doing and what we might need to start doing.

General trends

There were some general trends and patterns that were made very clear from the panel.

Less students going to University

Universities are gearing up to receive less students than normal. For UK Universities these statistics are constantly changing read here for the latest for Times Higher Education. For International students travelling to the UK there could be 80% less students.


As we look to the academic year of 2020 there is a degree of uncertainty and likely disruption ahead. Universities will not be returning to normal anytime soon so learning needs to adapt.

Lack of community

University is much more than just learning in lectures. Universities need to provide community both socially but also as an essential part of peer to peer learning. There will be an increase in mental health and pastoral support needed.

Blended learning

Universities are looking at a blended approach to learning, synchronous learning. This is much more collaborative using a variety of modes and platforms. There will be a shift in emphasis on how students learn and engage with academics.

Lessons learnt from lockdown

For me the part of the panel that stood out the most was the summary from Leah Belsky, Chief Enterprise Officer at Coursera. Coursera is a world-wide online learning platform founded in 2012 by Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller that offers massive open online courses, specializations, and degrees.

Coursera uses a combination of pre recorded lectures that students listen to on their own, then come together through study groups on slack, virtual classrooms and chat, this could also be done in person. So the emphasis is taken off the lecture as a transmission of a message and more the importance of students working together online and discussing their ideas with Academics. Online education is broadening access to university study globally, this has been seen with the rise of universities getting in touch with Coursera from across the world but also lifelong learning counts increasingly as education becomes more available..

Leah summarised three points of reflection on Universities during lockdown and looking into the future. Education will need to be…

1. More personalised

For many they are unable to return in person to their University, Immigration, pandemic fears, enjoyment of distance learning will all affect how students come to university. Universities have had to adapt and personalise education for individuals and will continue to need to do this. Universities will have to alter how they teach and offer alternative modes. – Education will become more personalised and more business-like.

2. Relevant

Now that the University has been reduced to simply learning as opposed to an experience and a community, more than ever the course needs to be relevant. The focus now is whether the University is teaching them job relevant skills – otherwise what is the point of learning? Students need to see how we blend face-face and digital modes, to enhance learning experiences. Students have become and will become even more demanding, wanting to receive the best skills possible. Its important to remember there are different modes of being online and how we utilise different programmes, opportunities and technology

3. Collaborative

Online education is broadening access to university study global. There has been and needs to be a greater collaboration between Universities. There is the potential for students to listen to lectures from different Universities. If students can listen to lectures from top class institutions, then it no longer makes sense for every university to teach and repeat lectures. Leah encouraged more collaboration between different universities and joining of courses.

Rethinking student ministry

Student workers from across Europe met afterwards to listen to each other and discuss the implications of the panel. Some key questions emerged that we are going to look at addressing in upcoming discussions and blog posts. Here are the questions asked that we want to find answers to. Many of them fit into Leah’s three categories of University needing to be more personalised, collaborative and relevant.

5 things to consider for the autumn

Lead well in chaotic times

One thing was really clear from the panel, the future is uncertain. At this point in an academic year our plans for the autumn would be done and dusted. However this year they’re not. Everything is changing and almost everything is unknown. So more than ever we need to lead well even in the choas. This article by Jenni Catron on Carey Nieuhof’s blog is really helpful. She shares here “If all of life were clear shades of black or white—if there were no difficult decisions to be made—there would be no need for leaders. That’s the game-changing reality for us. The great tension and the great responsibility of leadership means navigating the complexity our circumstances present. That’s what we do. It’s who we are.” 5 things you can do to lead well in chaotic times.

Co-create with students

I will never be a digital native, I was born in the wrong year, but more than ever I can invite and listen to students and encourage them to lead the way. One of the encouraging trends in lockdown has been the opportunity for dormant leaders to use their gifts to serve the church. Many of these are tech savvy with a gift of leadership. In the student world there are many leaders who are digital natives that can help us navigate the future, if only we would invite them with us on this journey. There is the potential for a new way of thinking, where students are co-creators and collaborators rather than just consumers.

Blended approach to ministry

A word that kept popping up in the session was blended learning, this ability to be online and offline but also to use a variety of platforms and modes to encourage learning, debate and discussion. This could be an exciting opportunity to move away from a ministry that looks like a simple transmission of a message and instead move to a style of learning that actually supports discovery, learning, & growth. Francina De Pater from the Netherlands says this about the Autumn. We’ve been “thinking through the most realistic scenario (which in our case is next semester’s blended forms of online and offline teaching), then prayerfully considering what to do”. Peter Dray shares “we used to be a physical ministry with some digital presence we are now a digital ministry with as much physical presence as possible”. There is huge potential for a great reach through online work, there is the potential for depth in smaller groups both online and physical. Consider a flexible, synchronous approach in your strategy for the coming year.

Offer community

There was a recognition that online learning lacks the community aspect that University has traditionally offered. Alan Tower Director of Friends International summarised it like this “Online learning needs to see how to create community and guard mental health”. Surely this is an open door. We have the most incredible reason to believe in and offer community and relationship at this time. We believe in a God that is relational to the core, from the very beginning of time he was Father, Son and Spirit. For me being salt and light has taken a massive U Turn during COVID19. I’ve become an online party host on most days. But this seems to be what my friends need right now and have expressed how grateful they are to me. The country is in isolation and we’re lacking real community. We’re unsure and afraid about what the future holds for each one of us. Yet as Christians we have something to say and now is the time to say it and demonstrate it.


It can be overwhelming as we look to the Autumn. Dewi Jones student worker shares this feeling here “The issue is really getting people to engage, people are suffering from online fatigue and there is a lot of competition for your time online”. Collaboration is key in the future of student work. There is the potential for churches and para church organisations to work together more. This could provide high quality training, events and engagement for students. There have been some great examples where student groups have joined together, one such example is the Scottish Christian Unions. Kenny Robertson from UCCF shares here

“In the space of one week we had 10 different events, including 3 specifically for international students, in a wonderful collaborative effort from nearly all the CU’s in Scotland (at least 17 out of 19 CU’s at the last count). Each event had at least 100 people join in with the live stream, peaking at nearly 400 watching live as John Lennox answered questions on God & suffering. Each night we followed up with further Q&A discussion on zoom, which continued for up to an hour after the main event on more than one occasion. Each event also appeared on the Facebook news feeds of several thousand people.”

Another example is in Serbia, throughout lockdown every Monday night all of the student groups in the country joined together for an evangelistic event. Because of this they were able to get high quality speakers each week and had a far greater reach because they worked together. Often the follow up was arranged in smaller groups online. As they look to the autumn their problem is how to keep on supporting the students that they’ve only met online!

What are your hopes for the next academic year?

Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, president of IE University in Madrid says this “Over 90 per cent of professors who try hybrid formats feel more satisfied and engaged, because they provide more opportunities to interact with students.” I wonder if the same could be true in discipleship and evangelism amongst students? For all the challenges and uncertainties there seems to be an open door right. Peter Dray UCCF Head of Creative Evangelism shares “Tearfund found that 18-24s are more likely to be engaging in spiritual practices than any other adult age cohort in the UK. 10% of 18-24s reported starting to read the Bible for the first time. Lets pray for a turning to God in this time. In lockdown God has been stripping away our previous structures giving us a chance to think afresh about discipleship and evangelism. I can’t wait to see what will happen in the Autumn term. This more than any other time is the time to work together, to listen to each other and to learn from one another.

Below is a summary of the Guardian panel discussion by Lorna Moore

Published by Nay Dawson

Hello and thank you for reading my blog. I'm married to Jon and live in Southampton with our two girls. I work with IFES Europe as their Regional Training Co-ordinator, training staff and students across Europe. In 2019 I set up Passion for Evangelism a network of creative, public female speakers. I'm a Trustee for the Cowrie Scholarship Foundation raising essential funds for disadvantaged Black British Students. I'm also a Trustee for Friends International helping welcome International students to the UK. In response to the war in Ukraine I helped set up Ukraine Connect matching refugees and hosts across Europe

3 thoughts on “The future of student work

  1. Hi Nay – great to read this & hear your reflections on the future of student work. Thanks for them – they’re helpful & interesting. I realise you’re writing from a British & European student perspective & your target audience is likely to be that constituency, but I thought it worth making a few comments from elsewhere in the world, which hopefully may be of some use.

    While we have made good progress domestically with our COVID19 elimination strategy, we are still responding to the ongoing international impact of it. That being said, we are back to a greater sense of ‘normality’ than many other nations are able to be, although things will likely never be quite the same again. As a minority world country that is leading the way on its COVID response & is also significantly ahead of the UK, USA & large parts of Europe in its secularisation, there is a lot that could be learned from NZ & the cultural pragmatism that allows us to try things & explore without too many people being bothered how they work out. We are at the cusp of a new dawn each day & the rest of the world follows 😉
    I presume 1.6 billion refers to the number of students globally? The global pandemic certainly impacted students globally, but I don’t think it’s accurate to imply all students were “out of Higher Education”. We are only a very small percentage of that statistic, but the students here weren’t “out of it” (at least not in that sense!), but were in Higher Education (or Tertiary education as it’s called here) that looked very different. For most, it was online only for a period of time.
    It’s too early to know for sure what the impact on student numbers will be. Our international student numbers have obviously been affected & we have fewer here, but there is an argument that numbers may increase, both of domestic & international students. If unemployment increases, training & upskilling becomes desirable, which may make numbers increase – potentially in the Polytechnics particularly.
    Uncertainty is very real, even when there is greater certainty. Flexibility is more of an essential in any planning.
    Lack of community for students has been an increasing issue. The ongoing emphasis on following the money, rather than the welfare of students may come home to roost at this time. Part of the challenge with Leah’s quote that “Education will become more personalised and more business-like.” is that it has been more business-like & less personalised & to change that will require significant intentionality, desire & a lot of hard work.
    Blended learning is now a reality & for TSCF/IFES, it is now our reality. We are working on the basis that going forwards we will be operating in both the online & physical dimensions. This may need a greater focus on thinking of reaching students than campuses per se. How we do that without losing our heart for the University/Polytechnic/College is crucial.
    I would echo the comments on collaboration. We have had Universities here asking the question about what joining forces (merging) could look like. Our Polytechs had already (pre-COVID) committed to being merged into a ‘mega-Polytech’ (which Chris Collins, former IFES Chair is currently leading).

    In terms of our response to the change, the need to be creative & to think differently needs to be emphasised. Too much of what I hear/see is just trying to do the same things a bit differently – the world we operate in now is very different & so we need to think out of the box.
    Our IFES commitment to student leadership needs to be re-emphasised. It is not simply about staff leading well – we need to help students lead as we navigate this path together. Maybe we should ask to join them, rather than inviting them to join us?!
    Keeping evangelism at the fore. I have noticed the temptation in lockdown & its aftermath, that there’s a temptation to be involved in endless conversations, reflection & introspection. Elvis had it right “a little less conversation, a little more action”. As the church has had throughout the ages, we face the challenge of keeping evangelism & the proclamation of Christ crucified at the forefront of who we are, our vision & values.
    Hope that is of some benefit & help 😊


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