• Isabelle Osborne

COVID-19: Is there a future for universities?

Fear is circulating that universities, already at risk prior to the pandemic, are in severe trouble, and their survival has become all the more precarious.

Universities are amongst the most prestigious institutions within a country, and many young adults spend years working towards realising their dreams of becoming a graduate in a competitive market. However, COVID-19 could be responsible for changing how university life is structured, and may even cause our beloved colleges to close for good.

After reading an article in the latest edition of The Economist, it becomes clear why universities are struggling to see a future. This is particularly due to their reliance on international students. America, Australia, Canada and Britain are amongst the countries who depend on foreign students to financially support their higher education institutions, with an increase of 2 million from 2000 to 5 million in 2020 highlighting how significant their support is. Whilst the British and EU student pays £9,250 each year in tuition, the international student could pay up to the £30,000 figure. However, the pandemic means that universities will have to face the reality that travel restrictions may prevent potential students from attending university in September. In Australia, visa applications have reduced by a third this year, highlighting how international student numbers and thus universities largest source of income will decrease. President Trump has stated that all students who have the option to study online will not be allowed into the country. But travel isn't only a COVID-related issue: tensions between China and the West in recent months may affect the number of high-paying Chinese students, a strong source of income for universities, travelling oversees.

It is not only the international restrictions that could present an issue; university campuses are notoriously known for incubating disease, which is made especially worse since students will be travelling from all over the country in the middle of a pandemic. Rapid spread of the virus can only be expected once universities begin, and many students are facing the possibility that they may have to stay at home rather than returning to the breeding grounds that are their uni campuses. If campuses across the country are seeing less students and staff returning for lectures, facilities such as cafes, bars, shops and student gyms may not receive the revenue they usually do.

University is not only a chance to gain a further education in the hope of earning a higher income post-graduation, but also give students the opportunity to live away from home, meet new friends and immerse themselves in the student life. Now that the university experience is looking significantly less appealing, as online lectures may become the reality, school leavers are having to consider whether deferral of their place may be the better option. If new students decide to stay at home or are prevented from travelling, university halls of residence may not be filled to the expected capacity, and thus leads to yet another loss of revenue.

This isn't necessarily the case for all universities, however. Those such as Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Oxford and other incredibly competitive universities are likely to survive on prestige alone, and will continue to attract students regardless of restrictions that mean the university experience is not the same. There are others, though, that are at severe risk - British universities have been granted funding and loans to cover 80% of lost income from international students, yet this only applies to research-focused universities. What of the other, non-research focused universities? Surviving without government aid could compromise the survival of our precious institutions. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts 13 universities in Britain are at risk of failing.

What does this indicate about the perception of Higher Education? Universities are inevitably going to depend more on their governments, yet if universities are to be left financially unsupported, it seems to suggest that the value placed on the degree has dwindled. The lack of a secure safety net for higher institutions gives off the sentiment that vocational qualifications are becoming more valuable and attractive than a degree from a university, such a suggestion supported by Boris Johnson's own promise to boost vocational education.

What is more, the universities who receive the loans will have to focus on subjects that deliver high wages or that add crucial benefit to the country, such as engineering. The fact this advice lacks recognition of pure subjects, such as history and English, places the value on those industries which can be accessed via non-university pathways, yet ignores disciplines that don't restrict students to a certain career path. This comes in light of the consideration of charging higher tuition fees for humanities courses in Britain, yet lowering those fees for degree considered more important for employment growth. It seems there is a political divide on the topic of education, with many believing the number of graduates is disproportional to the market demand; whilst the state pays for the majority of its students to go to university via loans, the government's perception of higher education is crucial for universities' survival. Perhaps COVID-19 could bring a premature end to Higher Education and pure-degrees.

It is also worth mentioning that the government have released significant information regarding the re-opening of schools and colleges, yet universities seem to have been left off their to-do list as it stands now. This says more about the perception of universities than anything: they must fend for themselves.

Although, Kevin Carey, the vice president for education policy and knowledge management at New America is more optimistic, stating that 'If you're a prestigious institution, people are not going to turn down a hard-won opportunity to earn a diploma that has a lot of brand value, even if earning it turns out to be less fun and more inconvenience than they thought it would be'. Carey's claim demonstrates that obtaining a university education is just as worthy as it has always been in some eyes. This is supported by Matt Durnin of the British Council, who stated 'The gap year doesn't look terribly attractive, the job market doesn't look terribly enticing', further indicative that, in these times of struggle, Higher Education provides a sense of structure, purpose and achievement that alternative post-18 options do not. However, this simply suggests that universities are the 'safest', rather than the most valuable, option, and therefore cannot offer too much hope for our Higher Education system.

Featured image courtesy of Dom Fou on Unsplash. Image license can be found here. No changes were made to this image.