C&B Notes

Higher Ed Hangover

Like many of you, we have kids at home participating in e-learning.  While COVID-19 is unlikely to fundamentally transform primary and secondary education, at least in the short-term, it could shake the foundations of higher education.  Colleges will face immediate economic impacts like revenue declines from domestic student deferrals, foreign students (who typically pay more tuition) staying home, depressed state funding for public universities, and even lower levels of alumni giving.  Longer-term, online learning tools and approaches may reinvent how colleges and universities deliver content and manage learning, something we have written about in the past.

Nearly seven centuries after the heads of medieval European universities from Oxford to Padua were forced to close their institutions during the Black Death and oversee a drop in the quantity and quality of scholarship that lasted for decades, their successors hope that any potential parallels with the coronavirus crisis will be limited. For now, academics at hundreds of higher education institutions across the world are focused on responding to the short-term disruption caused by the pandemic in maintaining staff and student welfare, shutting down campuses and adapting to teaching and exams conducted online.

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Although universities are already bracing themselves for a substantial drop in tuition fees — by far the largest share of most institutions’ revenue — from international students, the full scale remains unclear. In recent years, a growing middle class in emerging markets, especially China, has led to a surge in admissions. Almost 1m Chinese students are now studying outside the country. This year, those numbers are expected to fall sharply. Many students have not returned to their colleges since Chinese New Year in January. Even as travel restrictions start to lift in the coming months, there are knock-on effects from delays to the local exams and English language tests required for studying abroad, the cancellation of marketing events and delays in visa processing…

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at University of Oxford, argues that the leading English-speaking host countries for foreign students — Australia, the UK and the US — introduced relatively late and low-key controls in response to coronavirus. That may dampen Chinese interest at a time when Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore are investing, strengthening their reputation, and appealing to students across the region. He argues that there will be a shift from a sellers’ to a buyers’ market, with Chinese students less willing to travel and the downturn affecting the capacity to pay in other emerging nations such as India and Nigeria that make up much of the remaining demand. “It’s going to be chaos,” Prof Marginson says. “The Chinese won’t want to come and the Indians won’t be able to come.”

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For David Van Zandt, president of the New School in New York, as for many of his peers, the concern is whether domestic and international students return for the next academic year. “For most places, next fall is the make or break. We don’t know if it will be back to business as usual or we’ll be partially open. But the virus is an accelerator, like gasoline thrown on to burning embers. This is going to bring about a lot of changes in higher education that probably needed to be made.”Those changes are likely to include cutbacks, mergers and possibly even closures in a sector that has grown so fast in the past few years. But perhaps some universities can take comfort from the legacy of their forebears.

At Cambridge, for instance, interest after the Black Death turned from theology to more applied subjects such as medicine, and the redistribution of wealth led to an increase in endowments and the creation of new colleges. “Pandemics tend to leave a major mark,” says Sir Leszek, a former vice-chancellor at Cambridge. “People have different imperatives and whole disciplines evolve. But historically when universities have come through, it is because they have adapted to changes in society.”

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