Beginning with the first pandemic near modern-day Port Said, in north-eastern Egypt in 541 CE, pandemics have been, by their very nature, disruptive and tend to produce long-lasting change. The current pandemic is no exception to creating chaos and disruption, and higher education is not immune to disruption.
The virus has put the spotlight on higher education’s antiquated financial models, rigid admissions and registration procedures and dismal student progression and graduation rates. But COVID-19 has also presented higher education with opportunities to replace inefficiencies with reimagined solutions.
The functional moment will pass. The virus will recede, but how will colleges and universities worldwide respond to the residuals?
In my opinion, this pandemic will forever change the way students are recruited, educated and graduated. There can never be a return to the past. There will never be a new normal. There will only be the normal. The university needs to be reimagined, not merely reworked and to achieve this vision planning is as important as strategic planning.
The health crisis of 2020 has cast a bright light on the inefficiencies in higher education and accelerated what was already a higher education ‘industry’ in need of change, of reimagining. COVID-19 has presented higher education administrators with an opportunity to initiate change that will shape the future of their colleges and universities. At the intersection of disruption and unpredictability is a new model, a new way of thinking and planning.
Disruptions and pandemics are not the usual companions of logic and reason. And the dark alchemy of fear and uncertainty walks the halls of academic institutions worldwide, often paralysing clear thinking and bold decision-making.
We are living in a world where norms are constantly unravelling around the edges. At the intersection of disruption and unpredictability will emerge a new model for higher education. COVID-19 has created a new world order requiring a shift in perspective and thinking and demanding creative solutions to higher education’s problems.
As Professor Steve Smith, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Exeter – and newly appointed ‘international education champion’ – stated: “This crisis feels like no other. I honestly think it will change us, how we operate, teach and do research forever.”
Why we need to reimagine the university
The economist Milton Friedman once said: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.”
Pearson’s Global Learner Survey of 7,000 people aged 16 to 70, published in August 2020, revealed that perhaps the most profound transformation brought about by the pandemic is the reported change in students’ attitudes to obtaining a traditional four-year degree.
A survey of 2,200 teenagers aged 14 to 18 by the ECMC Group, a non-profit corporation focused on helping students succeed, revealed that 50% of those polled were open to getting something other than a four-year degree. And 70% want to chart their own educational path.
Three out of every four of those surveyed believed COVID-19 had fundamentally changed higher education as we know it, and that it is unlikely that there will be a return to the pre-COVID-19 higher education experience of students attending classes full-time, in-person.
Survey respondents believed online learning was here to stay and had the greatest potential for expanding access to higher education and helping to address the inequality in higher education.
The survey also revealed that 81% of the people polled believed fewer students would study abroad and 74% of the people polled believed fewer students would be able to afford or seek a traditional university education.
The survey results indicated that self-directed learning is gaining momentum. Vocational training, career preparation and short courses were listed as the best way to succeed in an economic downturn.
Finally, students expected their colleges and universities to help them find jobs after graduation.
Competitive reasons for reimagining
Alternative educational providers are increasingly entering the higher education marketplace.
Consider the following:
Moody’s Investors Service, the credit rating firm, announced in August 2020 that hybrid, non-degree programmes are growing at a rapid rate and that the pandemic will usher in new higher education business models through an increase in online capabilities and expanding non-degree certificate programmes.
Google Career Certificates programme offers a selection of professional courses to assist job seekers with acquiring the fundamental skills needed for in-demand jobs. Many of the certificates take only six months to complete and cost a fraction of what college online courses cost.
Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, wrote: “College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security.”
When hiring, Google plans to consider graduates of its certificate programmes the same as graduates with a four-year degree.
Microsoft has launched a global skills initiative aimed at providing more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by the end of the year.
IBM, Facebook and Salesforce are also creating their own short-term, skills-based credential programmes.
General Assembly, a coding boot camp, reported website traffic increasing from 175,111 visitors in April 2019 to 313,559 in April 2020 – an increase of 179%.
More than 120,000 students in 1,200 schools enrolled in the Paris-based OpenClassrooms in May 2020.
In April 2020, edX reported five million new users, more users than it added in all of 2019.
Gies College of Business has partnered with Coursera to offer an MBA programme costing less than US$25,000. In August 2020, more than 2,500 applications were received, an increase of 35% from August 2019.
Higher education providers, nipping at the heels of traditional colleges and universities and responding to the educational needs of the marketplace for flexible and affordable higher education courses and certificates, is another reason to create a reimagined university, one that can compete with non-traditional providers.
Economic reasons for reimagining
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, recently remarked: “There are three factors that separate a true economic depression from a mere recession. First, the impact is global. Second, it cuts deeper into livelihoods than any recession we’ve faced in our lifetimes. Third, its bad effects will linger longer.”
Many of the world’s economies have been shattered by the pandemic and this will impact future higher education enrolment and student mobility. The International Monetary Fund predicts the world’s economy will shrink by 4.9% this year.
The Asian Development Bank announced in May that COVID-19 could cost the global economy between US$5.8 trillion and US$8.8 trillion, and Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, warned in April 2020 that the Eurozone’s economy could shrink by up to 12% this year.
In August 2020, there were 15 million unemployed people in the European Union, an increase of 700,000 since April. In April 2020, the South China Morning Post reported that nearly half a million Chinese companies have closed as a result of the pandemic. Chinese companies posted their weakest corporate earnings in a decade in the first quarter of this year.
Japan’s household spending fell 6% in March 2020 from the previous year, the biggest drop in five years. Japan’s gross domestic product contracted 27.8% from April to June 2020, the third straight quarterly decrease and the biggest decline in post-war history.
The United Kingdom’s economy contracted 20.4% in the second half of 2020.
Australia’s central bank expects the country’s economy to contract by 6% this year and unemployment to reach 10%. The Australian government has forecast the biggest fiscal deficit since World War II.
South Korea officially entered a recession in August 2020, the first in 17 years.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the gross domestic product for the United States decreased at an annual rate of 4.8% for the first quarter of 2020 and 32.9% in the second quarter. Consumer spending in the United States decreased by 10% in 2020 compared to 2019 and around 55 million Americans had filed for unemployment between March and August 2020.
What do these economic declines and forecasts have to do with higher education? I believe consumer spending will decline as a result of economic contractions and, if one believes Ian Bremmer, the world is rapidly approaching, or is already in, a depression.
Future college and university enrolment and student mobility cannot be unbundled from economic reality. While some colleges and universities will experience enrolment growth in specific graduate-level courses and programmes, there are many other segments and cohorts of the higher education population that will experience steep declines because of economic downturns.
So the economic case for reimagining the university is clear. We need to act and that means changing the way universities operate, what new roles we need in university administration and how to view COVID-19 as an opportunity for something new.
Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.