While the pandemic may have been tough for universities, it has also provided a stage on which research institutions have shone. Institutions like Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins have played a central role in mapping the spread of coronavirus. Universities will certainly be involved in helping to find a vaccine, training the healthcare workers of the future, and mapping the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic.
Their value to society by no means ends there. Universities will continue to play a key role in the climate emergency, in addressing skills gaps, and nurturing the creative talents (‘Fatima’ aside) and leaders of the future. In the post-coronavirus economy, universities are also set to play a key role in helping workers retrain and reskill.
The extent to which universities succeed in the latter depends on the level of support at policy and university governance level for the ‘civic university’. This notion considers how universities can best serve local communities. There is some evidence that we are beginning to see this sort of thinking in certain regional institutions. Here, universities face competition for funding and students from FE colleges, online course providers, and other training providers.
A certain amount of soul searching will be needed at all levels in determining the role of universities in a post-pandemic world. No small amount of this will happen at policy level. While university administrators are key players, the rules of the game are determined by government.
In the US, much depends on the results of the 2020 presidential election, and the future president’s commitment to their campaign pledges. International students, access to education, and addressing inequalities in enrolments are among the issues on the table.
In the UK, shifts in university funding models and TEF have dominated the last decade. Before that we had the previous administration’s efforts to bring more people into higher education. As in the US, campus politics have attracted much media attention, with politically-correct students and academics clashing with ‘free speech’ advocates (usually) from the right of the political spectrum.
These issues have a significant bearing on the role universities will play, and touch on the existential questions to which we refer above.
der the surface. The events of last year, have merely served to throw them into sharp relief. The unifying theme: the role that universities play in our society.
In the marketized UK and US HE sectors, many students are asking what they should expect to get in return for their tuition fees. This is to be expected: a three or four-year degree in either country will set one back a five-figure sum.
These are not new questions. In the UK, widened access, employment-outcome focused messaging and TEF-contingent funding all contributed to a very 21st century conception of the student consumer. In the US, increasing tuition (already among the world’s highest) coupled with a tough pre-COVID employment market for graduates have led many to question if it is worth it.
The moving of provision online will give the question of value for money a slightly harder edge. With no direct access to lecturers, use of libraries, or social/networking opportunities, the university experience begins to look a bit threadbare.
Running parallel to the question of value for money, is the issue of the financial viability of universities under the current tuition-dependent funding model.
Deferrals, doubts over value, and impediments to international study will certainly eat into many university budgets. Many institutions in the world’s two most popular study destinations rely on international student revenue. This will be a particularly hard blow, therefore.
Consequently, some institutions may not make it through the financial hardship caused by coronavirus. Recent years have seen a spate of closures and mergers of American law schools, as graduates were churned out at an unsustainable rate. Certain voices predict we will see a wider replication of this post-pandemic. The outspoken Scott Galloway of NYU Stern School is one such commentator, predicting a forthcoming “reckoning” for overpriced US universities.
In the UK, the IFS predicts that 13 institutions (accounting for 5% of students) may not be able to weather the storm financially without governmental assistance.