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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


In the COVID-19 pandemic, closures of higher education institutions have attracted less attention than closures of early-childhood education provision, primary schools and secondary schools. Yet, the long-term impact of university closures could be more severe than the impact of school closures. Tens of thousands of higher education institutions have closed down, affecting the life of millions of students worldwide. Like schools, universities have made a remarkably fast switch to replace face-to-face lectures and seminars by distance education, online learning and mixed-modes of educational delivery. Notwithstanding exceptions, many institutions were not prepared for the radical switch. They found that infrastructure was lacking, the digital skills of lecturers were not up to the challenge, and that even the familiarity of students with digital tools and platforms was lower than expected. There was not enough time for the instructional design of the digital resources and conceiving the new format of lectures and assignments, so that the quality of the educational delivery and the learning experience of students suffered. Now that in many countries the end of term is approaching, it becomes clear that also examinations and student assessments will be affected, possibly causing severe disruptions in study progression, graduation, and progress in planned learning trajectories. And as in school education, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are suffering the most, triggering another blow to the already arduous ambition to improve equity in access and study progress in higher education.

But unlike schools which are sheltered under the safe shield of public funding, universities will also have to confront a serious assault to their business model. A first and almost immediate consequence of the pandemic is the sudden fall in the numbers of fee-paying international students. Many foreign students, especially those from Asian countries and China in particular, left and went back home. Universities are now confronted with claims to return part of the fees those students paid. And for the next academic year, they have to account for a significant income loss from fee-paying international students. For countries where universities have become dependent on this income stream, the situation looks very dire. In the UK, universities estimate the total financial loss at around 6.9 billion pound sterling and several university leaders have pressed the government to consider to bail-out their institutions. Also in Australia, another country with universities very much dependent on income from fee-paying international students, similar emergency calls have been heard. Even regardless of the financial consequences, the sudden drop and subsequent reorientation in international student mobility will have a deep impact on the global university landscape.

Second, in many jurisdictions universities are indirectly confronted with the fiscal impact of the crisis on the budgets of their subsidizing authorities. Especially in the US, where states are not allowed to go into deficit spending, budget adjustments are implemented immediately and recklessly, causing immediate financial difficulties for state universities and community colleges. For those institutions which cannot rely on huge endowments like their private counterparts, the future looks very grim. Some institutions have already closed their doors or have announced not to re-open again in the next academic year. Even in countries, like in most of continental Europe, where public funding of universities is not immediately imperilled, expectations are that in the medium term the economic downturn and its fiscal consequences will lead to cuts in higher education spending. Governments will have to cope with demands to increase public spending on health care, welfare and care for the elderly and will most probably de-prioritise higher education.

Confronted with short- or medium-term financial difficulties, institutions seem to have no alternative than to lay off staff. Press reports in the UK speak about hundreds of staff being dismissed at UK universities. Often, younger, very promising and talented research staff on precarious contracts are made redundant first. In a sector with a distorted age pyramid and heavily reliant on the research potential of their younger, more innovative staff, this is a very risky strategy. It is difficult to see how universities can uphold their research excellence in the long run if they cut off their talent pipeline. Fewer and older staff will also lead to challenging situations on the teaching and learning functions of universities, at a time when it is expected that demand for higher education will increase. It is well-known that in times of crisis, students prefer to prolong their studies and delay their entry on a highly risky labour market. Opportunity costs for longer study careers decrease and students may wish to strengthen their competitive advantages on a very tight labour market. Despite increased expenditure on higher education in the past years, few countries have been able to match higher student numbers with equivalent increases in public funding. It will be very difficult for universities to meet increased demand with high quality teaching and learning in a situation of even smaller financial resources and fewer staff.

At the time of writing of this blog, Cambridge University announced that it will move to complete online delivery of its lectures and classes for the next academic year. Until the summer of 2021, no face-to-face lectures will take place, although there would be exceptions for small seminars and group-based learning with strict compliance to social distancing measures. Other leading UK universities such as the University of Manchester followed and beyond any doubt many more will take similar decisions. First reactions from students and politicians seem to indicate that they feel taken by surprise and that they not really appreciate the perspective of a full year without face-to-face teaching.

This development raises a number of questions. Developments towards innovation in their education delivery and towards more blended forms of teaching and learning predated the COVID-19 crisis, but the crisis definitely seems to accelerate this development. Innovative use of technology in higher education delivery is a necessary and promising development. But the question is whether universities will have the time, the resources and the expertise to switch to high-quality online teaching and learning. Developing high-quality coursework for online delivery requires huge investments, especially when integrating smart data and artificial intelligence in course design, learning analytics and delivery platforms. No doubt, many institutions are not up to the challenge. Low-quality videotaping of lectures will then still be the main format.

The next question then is whether students will be happy with the low value for money they will receive. In the UK, students already complain that what they received in teaching and learning experience was not worth the entry ticket of 9,250 pound sterling. With low-quality online provision universities will put the contract with students in danger. Many other countries have slowly but definitely shifted to higher levels of private funding. This makes students more critical of the educational value they receive. Universities feel reassured by the quasi monopoly they still have on awarding degrees, diplomas or other qualifications and credentials. In their view, a student still will look to universities to get the qualifications which pay off on the labour market. While this might be true to a certain degree, there are now many more competitors than in the recent past. In a recent paper, the OECD has explored the emerging market of alternative credentials which seem to rapidly conquer the space of postsecondary learning. Alternative provision and alternative credentials may very well undermine the monopoly of universities for advanced qualifications.

The really important question then is what intrinsically defines the university experience which makes it so worthwhile. Even if massification has fundamentally modified the dream of the medieval encounter between the master and the pupil or the Humboldtian ideal of research-based Bildung, many students and graduates would still see the personal exchange with researchers and professors and the small-group collaboration with students in laboratories and seminars as the most valuable learning experiences. The COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath might force universities and students to shift their frame of reference of high-quality teaching and learning, but to develop new modes of delivery which are equally motivating and effective, while remaining competitive against alternative modes of provision and certification, is going to require an awful lot of imagination, creativity and ingenuity. Universities need to rethink their value for money proposition and examine whether it is not the time to make the necessary investments to make the transition happen. The price for neglecting this challenge now might be very high.

Dirk Van Damme

Dirk Van Damme was professor of education at Ghent University, general director of the Flemish rectors’ conference VLIR, advisor and chief of staff of several Flemish ministers of education and currently senior counsellor at the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills.

The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA is 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.