How Will COVID Change Higher Education? Here’s the Debate

Global Ed

There are two, divergent views on the impact COVID will have on higher education. The debate extends to most “new normals” today, but in education, it’s particularly polarizing.

On the one hand there’s the view that disruption was coming anyway, COVID just gave it the nudge it needed, and now let’s rethink the whole higher-education model. The other view, of course, is that this is temporary, that the global education dream will remain unchanged and things will return to normal sooner or later. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Let’s look at both theories.

The one immediate, short-term impact is that many universities have moved their classes online with the aim of causing as little disruption of the students’ studies as possible. That, however, is the current impact. How will things pan out in the long term is really what much of the debate is about.

This will pass. Students will return to campus-life

Zoom, for all its benefits, cannot replace campus-life. No doubt it’s serving a great purpose at the moment, but that’s only because of the pandemic. Once this is over (and it will be), students will want to come back to campuses.

And research shows they want to.

A comprehensive survey by QS gives insight into prevailing student sentiment (as of June this year). For now, the overwhelming belief (and hope) seems to be that changes are temporary. 82% of respondents said they’d like to start their global ed journey this year (42%), or the next (40%). Of the students who admitted that the crisis had altered their plans, most are choosing to defer or postpone their education (55%), while only a few have definitely chosen not to pursue their global ed dreams for now (7%). So clearly, despite the virus, students are gearing up to pursue their education as planned (or just a little later). And they aren’t alone.

With social distancing measures in place, many universities are preparing to welcome students back. In fact, many have already announced their intention to reopen in the fall. Purdue, for instance, has announced that it will open this fall; The University of Florida has shifted its term back by a week, and Notre Dame has decided to start the semester early. Columbia has decided to open its labs (at the very least). The UC campuses have decided to deliver the first semester of classes online (until things are normal), while institutions like University of Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Edinburgh and Warwick, amongst several others have designed a hybrid curriculum (these could, of course, change – but this is the status as of now).

From leading education hubs around the world, the message seems clear: these are simply provisional measures until things are better, and when they are, it will be business as usual.

Now the other side of the debate

Not everyone seems to agree. Renowned NYU professor, Scott Galloway is known for his bold and unabashed opinions on finance and technology. His vision for higher education is nothing short of revolutionary. He argues that we’ve started transitioning to a world where on-campus experiences, as we’ve known them, will be accessible only to the children of the 1%. The fact that parents and students demanded a reduction in tuition fee, even though online classes are still being conducted, indicates that the value of education itself has diminished.

Galloway’s predictions go something like this – over the next few decades, we will witness the closure of possibly thousands of university campuses, with only around the top fifty institutions surviving. The process will be gradual, with several institutions operating as “zombie universities”, which means they may be able to match their costs—but not earn enough to repay debts. According to Moody’s 30% of colleges already run on a deficit. Ultimately, he’s looking at a world where some hybrid of online and offline education being delivered to much larger batches of students (by way less institutions).

This transformation, of course, must be aided by the biggest technology firms. Partnerships with Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook could go a long way in efficiently delivering education. But why would the tech giants partner with these universities anyway? It’s because these names—MIT, Harvard, Berkeley (amongst a plethora of others) are the biggest brands in the world. Besides, with competition creating performance pressure in the industry, these tech firm need to take bold steps to maintain investor interest. The value of a Harvard certification is so high, that people will actually consider a subpar experience to achieve that degree.

But, what of college life?

The problem with entertaining the possibility of Galloway’s future is that it discounts the fact that students still associate on-campus experiences with a sense of normalcy, and so, a perpetual shift from the real to the screen is hard to accept. Campus experiences have undoubtedly become about more than just traditional education—they are about experiential learning. Campuses provide a safe space for one to build networks, interact and ideate, and of course, transition into adulthood in a somewhat controlled environment. Harder still will be convincing those who believe this is an inferior experience, to pay for it.

Online classes worked, yes, but only because there was no other option. However, it was also a solution that left several students, parents and professors unhappy. Online education, while making education accessible to people from across the world, is not nearly the same as being on campus (read our article where we compare traditional with online here).

In a survey conducted by EY Parthenon (in April), when asked if students wish to return for another year of education, almost 20% more students were willing to come back only if the medium of instruction was in person. Upon being further surveyed, 65% students expected a reduction in fees if classes continued online. This sentiment has become more pronounced since—the QS survey revealed that 86% students believed that online education should be offered at a discounted rate. Galloway is right on one front—the value of a college degree is not just the education. Unlike his extreme claim, a mindset like this makes it all the more crucial for universities to open for business. And soon.

The impact of declining enrollments owing to coronavirus will be severe of many universities. Smaller and larger schools are facing the financial threat of reducing revenues. While for the former, a significant decline in revenues could spell trouble, as they do not have large endowments to fall back on unlike the latter institutions. This is not to say that larger institutions will escape unscathed. Of Purdue’s $2 billion revenue, $1.3 billion was tuition income. For Columbia, a $5 billion institution, this number will be significantly higher. Larger institutions are highly dependent on non-student revenue sources—sports, research grants and licensing—all contingent on a fully functioning campus. For the smaller institutions, their primary source of revenue remains the students (rather, the fees their parents pay). While these factors could definitely spell trouble for universities, they will be more determined than ever to fight back and preserve traditions and a method of functioning that has existed for centuries.

So, where are we headed?

Well, evidence seems to point towards the fact that we might witness the closure of a few institutions, and a revival of business models for others. The cause, however, is not solely COVID. Its role here would simply be that of a catalyst, that exposed flaws in a system that had been building for years.

Converting to a solely online experience will be cost efficient, yes. But at the same time, they forfeit chunks of revenue on campus board and lodge, on-campus research grants and cultural and sporting events. They also leave several college aspirants disappointed. Not to mention the international students, who contribute to almost 50% of tuition revenue, will probably not choose a permanent online experience. Another possible outcome could be a reduction in margins from certain less-practical majors, as the world will be geared towards hiring professionals in more scientific and traditional fields to meet new and evolving employment demand.

The impact of the outbreak has been to bring about changes in thought and behavior. It’s too soon to describe an exact future for higher education. Theories aside, outcomes are generally rooted in how our demand reacts to the decision of those supplying education. Traditional higher education systems have outlived the plague, the Spanish flu, and devastating wars. Whether coronavirus is yet another hurdle to be cleared, or a groundbreaking event that will radically change the course of higher education, remains to be seen.

Our bet is that there will be a change, and that we’ll arrive upon a newer, more hybrid model. But it won’t be either of the extremes – while traditional on-campus education is not going anywhere, online is definitely going to be a component of future learning systems. Like we said earlier, we’ll adapt and land somewhere in the middle.

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Global Ed


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