Universities across Wales face "continuing uncertainty" despite the improving coronavirus situation, with the pandemic disrupting student life and travel restrictions affecting international learners.

Meanwhile, the consequences of the UK's departure from the European Union has thrown up new challenges, as well as opportunities, for Welsh higher education to continue "vital" student exchanges and produce world-leading, competitive research and innovation.

Today, a group of leading figures from four Welsh universities appeared before the Welsh Affairs Committee of MPs to give evidence on the pressing issues facing higher education in Wales.

Students keen to get back to campus after a year of coronavirus

Universities moved much of their learning online last year when the pandemic forced the closure of campuses in Wales and elsewhere, and while the situation has now improved, a form of 'blended learning' – combining face-to-face teaching with remote lectures and seminars – appears to be the way forward in the short-term future.

Professor Colin Riordan, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said coronavirus had required a quick and drastic response, but while uncertainty remained, the pandemic had shown the potential for remote learning as a more permanent element of campus life.

“Elements of it certainly will stay – we’ve shown we can deliver elements of degree programmes via remote means," he said, citing larger lectures as an example where online sessions work better.

Tutors had been given the "capacity to devise new programmes for student we wouldn’t have been able to access before," he added.

Professor Paul Boyle, the vice-chancellor of Swansea University, agreed, saying the pandemic would go on to help lecturers "choose more effectively what can be done online, but really make use of the time we have available".

READ MORE:

Blended learning would also make it easier for universities to collaborate on courses and projects, he added.

But the pair said that while student satisfaction in Wales was high, the overwhelming consensus among learners was to return to more normal university life.

“Students clearly still want the on-campus experience – they’re very keen to be back," Riordan said.

"We must never forget a university education is an holistic education that includes sitting in lecture theatres and seminars but also engaging in a wide range of other activities," Boyle added.

This week, the government said students in Wales would be able to form 'contact groups' of between six and 30 people, depending on the setting; as well as remove the two-metre social-distancing guidelines in universities, with the aim of making it easier to allow more in-person learning.

Travel restrictions and Brexit shake up futures for international students

While the lockdown rules in Wales and the rest of the UK are being lifted, ongoing measures restricting overseas travel mean international students are facing a more uncertain future still.

Universities rely on international students, not just for the fees they pay but also for their contribution to key principles of higher education: the exchange of culture and ideas, opportunities to broaden horizons, and the ability to attract the world's best and brightest to these shores.

Professor Tim Woods, Aberystwyth University's pro vice-chancellor, said the "big uncertainty" facing institutions was how the so-called 'red list' of countries with banned travel would affect overseas students and "whether that will put them off coming to the UK or not".

An extension of the student visa deadline would give students and universities more comfort, although the numbers of study applications from outside Europe have so far remained strong, boosted partly by other countries' border policies.

"We’ve undoubtedly benefited from the fact Australia – a big competitor – has had its borders closed for some time," Riordan said, but competition for international students is likely to increase when the pandemic wanes.

But politics has played as much of a role in this as has coronavirus. Take the United States, where a change in leadership could now mean more overseas students look to enroll in US colleges rather than the UK.

"Many students across the world were perhaps discouraged from going to the United States by the previous president," said Boyle. "With the new president there’s a much more open and encouraging sign for people to want to go."

And in the UK, Brexit continues the reshape the opportunities available to people studying at university.

While non-European overseas applications have gone up, the number EU applicants has dropped, according to Woods, Boyle, and Bangor University vice-chancellor Professor Iwan Davies.

With Brexit came the end of the UK's participation in the Erasmus student exchange programme, a move that "disappointed" the leadership in both Cardiff and Swansea.

But the UK government's replacement Turing scheme, and the Welsh ILE programme, will look to fill the void, and both have been welcomed warmly by higher education leaders in Wales.

READ MORE: New student exchange scheme hailed as 'down payment on young people's futures'

Boyle said Erasmus was "a very good scheme" but the two successors should be seen as "complimentary" to the EU's exchange programme, while Woods said the addition of the ILE in Wales had caused English universities to "envy" those in Wales.

Whereas Turing is funded initially for one year and only sends UK students overseas, the Welsh Government's ILE scheme – which is being run by Cardiff University – is an exchange programme that has been funded for an initial five years.

"The ILE scheme is innovative…it’s about outward participants as well as inward participants," said Davies. "But we don’t see this as either/or [with Turing]."

The schemes will ensure students still have "mobility" opportunities despite the end of Erasmus – something Boyle said was "absolutely vital".

"Of course it’s important for our students to have experiences all over the world…but for a healthy university system it’s also vital we attract people into our universities," he said. "That two-way flow is a really vital part of the way university systems across the world want to operate."

Applications for the Turing scheme have closed for the coming academic year, while the ILE is expected to be up and running in the autumn of 2022.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.