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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


There is something deeply paradoxical about futurology. Whether the future is being painted as paradise or hell, more of the same or something completely different, these prophecies rarely materialize. Futurology isn’t easy. In hindsight, looking back to looking ahead, one can nicely see the limits of extrapolation, as well as the restrictions of utopian dreams or nightmares. As the stale joke has it, it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.

At the same time, they yield interesting insights about their origins. Evidently futurists are more reliable witnesses on their own day and age and the way they saw it than on prospects. Applied to the present this implies that future readers of contemporary expectations and concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will do so with a good deal of scepsis about their predictive accuracy. And take these for what they basically are: reflections or rather, magnifications of the mood of today.


The worldwide impact of the COVID-19 virus and the many measures to contain its spread have brought about a keen sentiment of crisis, not so much because of the lethal powers of virus itself as due to the implications of the containment measures. A range of emergency interventions is hitting sensitive nerves in our system, our usual patterns of behaviour and familiar preferences. In more than one way this crisis is a test, a kind of unintentional experiment on our customs and habitudes.

In Higher Education – like in many sectors of society – we are now facing a first round of urgent challenges. Although news media are carelessly reporting that universities are closed as a consequence of measures taken, in fact almost all have moved to different modes of activity, most  of them by digital means of communication. For the time being working from home has become the default setting, access to library facilities is remote only and most activities in wet labs, clinics and hospitals have been altered or reduced considerably. All of it with a high  degree of success thanks  to the joint efforts of many, a great talent for improvisation and a keen readiness to be flexible and adaptive.

The timeframe of these modified operations is in months. Reprioritising and adjourning are usually done within the same time window. The underlying, oft unspoken assumption, is that normalcy will have returned by the start of next academic year.

In my estimation the most plausible scenario is that once this first round of urgent challenges and improvised response will be drawing to a close, Higher Education Institutions will want to resume business-as-usual as much and as fast as they can. Remote teaching and distance learning are very welcome substitutes, but they come with their natural limitations. In many fields practical work as well as peer learning and experiential learning require presence and teamwork. Comprehensive assessments are hard to do without a classroom experience. On top of that, the workload of faculty hardly allows for the present degree of prioritizing redesign of teaching to remain doable and acceptable for a much longer period of time.

Some may find this scenario of a rapid reset to default is wasting a good crisis, others may think it way too optimistic. Yet this course of events would not at all surprise me. Looking back to earlier periods of disruption over and over the powers of attraction of normalcy appear to be formidable and not to be underestimated.

There are of course certain important aspects of the present Higher Education landscape that will suffer drawbacks for a longer period of time than others. Pundits are already pointing to internationalisation – above all the mobility part of it – as the number one victim. I do, however, doubt it will be more than a temporary dip. More seriously, it is to be expected, given the economic setback in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, that private as well as public funding of Higher Education will come under pressure, according to the specific national arrangements the system is depending on. In some cases, these factors are interrelated: fewer incoming foreign students, lower income. The gravest problem I expect to occur is a further widening of the already existing gap between individuals, communities and nations that are more respectively less powerful in socio-economic terms. I’ll get back to this effect later.


At this point of my thinking on the world of Higher Education after COVID-19, my thoughts went  back to a think tank project we did almost twenty years ago. It was about the ‘risk society’. We were a mixed group of scholars and practitioners of various background. Among them philosophers and sociologists, politicians and insurance people, safety inspectors as well as public health  professionals. I learned a lot. I remember a transport safety specialist explaining to us how overreacting often is the way we cope with disaster. As we want to exclude future repetition of a calamity we avidly reach for measures, rules and regulations that promise exactly this. Never ever again! Yet what at the time of the event looked like the thing to do often turns out to be largely useless additional red tape, creating pseudo-security.

Our sociological colleagues introduced us to the work of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck on the risk society as a defining attribute of much of the contemporary world.i Progress has banned so many of the dangerous and unwanted features earlier generations had to live with that we came to embrace the illusion of a safe and predictable world. Misfortunes under control, as it were. The consequence being that every calamity is a mistake, an unacceptable breach of confidence.  Someone should not have let this happen. Some authority should have prevented it and once it did happen, they should make sure it will never happen again.

At the same time, we know we are living amidst complexities, in a space of global dimensions, surrounded by a host of capricious agents and influences, including ourselves. There is a constant  risk that any of these, anywhere might start a chain of events that could end in disaster. How to cope with this possibility, live in these risk-bearing conditions? How to avoid a state of denial and prudently be prepared for misfortune when it strikes?

The good news is that there are countless experts who know about risk, who make inventories of  risk potential and contingency plans of how to prevent or how to cope. Long lists of national agencies, scientific institutes, international organisations and independent analysts are constantly producing schemes and schedules, issuing advise and warning. Just do a quick internet search and you’ll find expert reports on each and every risk factor.

The not so good news is that most of us do not pay heed such warning and advice most of the time. We do not care as long as emergency is asleep and calamities do not materialize. Apparently ‘It is bound to end in disaster’ is not the kind of life motto that helps you carry through. ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it’ is more like it.


In most of the risk inventories I have seen pandemics invariably rank among the most serious and  the most common. Infectious diseases have been with us since times immemorial. Some come and go, others remain. Whether carried by way of bacteria or a virus, it is their specialty to spread to infect.

Sometimes with only benign consequences for their hosts, sometimes with very serious results. Annually influenza type A causes up to half a million fatalities. In its rather short career HIV has already killed an estimated 35 million people.

On the website of the Global Health Council – its offices not too far from President Trump’s – you may find a report from 2016 on how to be better prepared and how important this would be. This is their summary message:

“The Ebola crisis in West Africa was both a tragedy and a wakeup call, revealing dangerous deficiencies across global systems to prevent, prepare, and respond to infectious disease crises. To address these shortcomings and inform a more effective response in the future, the National Academy of Medicine convened the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future (….). The Commission’s report (…) highlights the essential role of pandemic preparedness in national security and economic stability—a critical but often under-examined dimension of the global conversation post-Ebola. Importantly, the report demonstrates that the impact of infectious disease crises goes far beyond human health alone—and that mitigation, likewise, requires the mobilization and long-term commitment of multiple sectors.”ii

A wakeup call indeed. Yet this is by far not the only statement making the very same point. Evidently there is a constant need for wakeup calls. The “we’ll cross the bridge when we get there” motto appears to be much more attractive than rational caution and prudence. It is simply more convenient to disregard calamity occurring elsewhere, hitting other people in foreign countries, and dream yourselves to be safe.

Which brings me back to my thoughts on Higher Education in a post COVID-19 world. Universities have a key responsibility for societies, ultimately in the interest of promoting health, prosperity and enlightenment around the world. Sustainable development has become a common umbrella term for the multitude of aspects and sectors involved. And it has become the general opinion that universities in teaching and learning as well as in research must contribute to present and future well-being by enhancing sustainable development.

Pandemic preparedness is no doubt a key agenda item for sustainable societies. Shouldn’t this agenda be taken up by universities? Shouldn’t they be creating strong interdisciplinary programs in teaching and learning as well as in research so that public health and medical expertise do not stay within their own silo but are being shared and co-developed with economists, sociologists, lawyers, cultural analysts, mathematicians? Or in an even wider circle and on the broader topic of sustainable coping mechanisms in the risk society?

In the course of the past decade sustainability has been graciously accepted as part of Higher Education’s responsibility and agenda. This may be strategic lip-service in many cases. Here and  there serious efforts are being made to redesign study programs and reprioritise research projects accordingly. This is, however, often happening in niches rather than mainstream. And only rarely directly linked with social innovation and/or policy developments at a national or international scale. So there still is a world to win.

If this present disruption would indeed be experienced as a wakeup call, our present crisis might have an up-side and lead to serious joint efforts of universities and relevant research institutes for the long term. I see a good number of good and real reasons for this to happen. One should strike when the iron is hot. There are clear signs that public appreciation for the role of scientific expertise is benefiting from scientists’ part in mastering the pandemic. At the same time academics may be more prepared and willing to engage in redesign and reprioritizing their programs in the wake of the present challenges. An additional good reason for a prominent role of universities is the obvious lack of trusted alternative options. For profit business is what it is, for profit business. Which is not always identical with the public good. Political leadership for that matter is not always offering the trusted pair of hands societies deserve. Just compare the German Chancellor’s press conferences on the pandemic and the role of science with the exclamations of the American President.


Projections of desired developments and pleas for positive change like the one above definitely belong to the category of futurology I mentioned at the outset of this paper. They are invitations rather than predictions and should be read as reflections of this author’s persuasion.

Since 2013 I have been working closely with the Magna Charta Observatory. This engagement has taught me that motives and values are of crucial importance in Higher Education, in terms of mission and strategy, as well as in terms of operations. It is essential that universities know what is driving them, as institutions as well as faculty, which moral and social values are underpinning their programs and preferences. Is it self-preservation, staying in business and doing well in financial terms? Or do universities heed ulterior motivations?

Had the COVID-19 pandemic not intervened, the Observatory would  have launched a new version  of its foundational statement this coming September. It professes a clear articulation of the main principles, values and responsibilities of universities worldwide. Its core message reads as follows:

“Universities acknowledge that they have a responsibility to engage with and respond to the aspirations and challenges of the world and to the communities they serve, to benefit humanity and contribute to sustainability.”iii

To live up to this commitment or  not, that is in essence what is at stake in the wake of the COVID-  19 pandemic. Universities are facing moral and ethical challenges in dimensions that most of them have not been seen in the lifetime of present leadership, faculty and students. One would hope that we rise to the occasion. If under financial pressure as a consequence of the imminent economic setback difficult choices must be made, the less powerful must not be the ones paying the price. It most certainly would do Higher Education good if universities were defending and protecting precisely these interests. That is exactly the kind of test or real life experiment I referred to earlier on.

i Ulrich Beck Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Wege in eine andere Moderne. Suhrkamp Verlag 1986 (ET Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage Publishers 1992)


iii For the full text of the statement see



Sijbolt Noorda is currently the President of the Magna Charta Observatory in Bologna. He has also been a President of ACA and of the University of Amsterdam, as well as a board member of EUA.

The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA will be publishing every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well-known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.