A golden age for universities will come to an end
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Nov 17th 2020
by Hamish Birrell: public policy correspondent, The Economist
THE PAST year was a difficult one for new students. Many were barred from campus. Others could not enter the country in which they hoped to study. Those who made it were greeted by freshers’ fairs on Zoom and strict socialising rules.
All this means that 2021 will be a difficult time to run a university. Over the past few decades, universities have thrived, supported by rising prosperity, growing demand and politicians who saw them as engines of economic growth. Covid-19 threatens much of this.
The most obvious risk concerns international students. Their numbers have surged in recent years. By the time the pandemic struck, there were more than 5m around the world, mostly travelling from the emerging world to study in the rich world’s best universities, and paying handsomely to do so.
Now universities are working out how to get by with fewer of them. The problem will be most acute in countries with strict travel restrictions. In July 2019, 144,000 international students arrived in Australia. In July 2020, just 40 made it.
Support from politicians will be limited. This is partly a question of priorities. Universities must compete with businesses and the public sector for financial support. But it also reflects the fact that they have lost some of their lustre in recent years.
The expansion of higher education has coincided with poor productivity growth in much of the rich world, undermining faith in universities’ ability to boost growth. Political disputes are increasingly divided along educational lines: between the have-degrees and the have-nots.
In America, Australia and England, right-wing governments gave much less support than universities wanted to help them through the first wave of the pandemic. In America, the financial context for universities will deteriorate, as states respond to falling tax revenues by cutting spending.
Universities will have to cut back as a result. Grandiose building projects will be put on hold. Staff with short-term contracts will lose their jobs. In America, official figures suggest that the college workforce has shrunk by 7% since the start of the pandemic. Job losses appear to be even bigger in Australia.
Some universities will disappear altogether. In some cases the process will be smoothly managed, and the troubled institution will engineer a merger with a stronger neighbour. But there will also be bankruptcies, most often in America. Edmit, a college-planning outfit, estimates that a third of American private colleges are on course to run out of money within six years.
Institutions wishing to avoid this fate must find new ways to make money. Many are working out how to teach from a distance. Others are looking to offer short, practical courses to the temporarily jobless.
By the end of 2021 things may start to improve. Universities provide somewhere for youngsters to wait out a recession, and thus tend to see enrolment grow after economic downturns. There may even be pent-up demand among international students who have put off studying for a year. But it will be a long wait for many universities, and not all will make it through the crisis.
Hamish Birrell: public policy correspondent, The Economist ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition of The World in 2021 under the headline “Bad dreams”