Six weeks into lockdown, we are firmly into Rumsfeldian territory of known and unknown unknowns about the progression and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the HE media have been dominated by speculation on the impacts and implications for the sector, blurring across four key questions: how bad will it be; what can we do about it; will the government intervene; and what will the post-lockdown new normal look like?
A short, if somewhat trite, summary of the debate so far would be: “No-one knows!”, as conjecture and guesswork substitute for the dearth of facts. But some tentative answers are beginning to emerge from all the noise.
How bad will it be?
Several recent reports have attempted to estimate the incidence and scale of the potential impacts on university recruitment and other funding sources. UK universities have postulated an immediate hit of some £890 million in the current academic year from lost rental income and short-term costs, and a much worse shortfall of £6.9 billion in 2020-21 from collapsing international recruitment and deferrals by home students. London Economics, in a report commissioned by the Universities and Colleges Union , are – unusually for them – less pessimistic, predicting a ‘black hole’ of up to £2.5 billion from falling enrolments in 2020-21. A more nuanced analysis by David Kernohan for Wonkhe predicts most universities losing between 20 to 30 per cent of their income and, possibly worse, being pushed into cashflow deficits during the coming year.
All this is of course number-crunching speculation at this stage, as the responses of international and home students and business demand for university services remain known unknowns. But it is clear that universities must start planning for their very survival in a significantly smaller, poorer and more uncertain market, making a mockery of the growth plans that many were submitting to the OfS just a few months ago.
What can we do about it?
Quite understandably, the forward planning horizon for most universities has been perforce reduced to weeks and months. The overnight closure of campuses has forced institutions to throw out traditional measured approaches to change, and to introduce online coursework, student support and assessment arrangements, provided by work-from-home-based staff, often in a matter of days. This has been a remarkable achievement, especially given the generally slow adoption of e-learning and ed-tech across the sector hitherto (although Sir Tim O’Shea, former Principal of Edinburgh University, has warned that only around 20 universities appear well-geared to making these permanent features of their post-COVID provision) . Durham University for one has already had to back-track on plans for mainstreaming online provision.
Beyond immediate emergency measures, universities are looking to mitigate the impacts of the crisis on recruitment for the 2020-21 student intake, against the replacement of A-levels with moderated teacher assessments and continued uncertainties over whether campuses can re-open for the normal start of autumn term. UCAS has optimistically tweeted to applicants that it’s business as usual for admissions , while the OfS and ministers have warned institutions against predatory recruitment measures such as ‘conditional unconditional’ offers. Opinions are divided over whether home undergraduate demand will fall (because of gap year deferrals) or rise (as in past recessions). Either way, it will be a buyers’ market for students able to pick and choose between institutions desperate for their fees, whether or not there is a return to recruitment caps (as many expect). But they may have to reconcile themselves to starting their studies online, for a term at least.
Will the Government intervene?
Universities UK was quick off the mark in joining the queue of business sector bodies submitting claims for substantial Government support to help their members weather the COVID storm. They have proposed an extensive but largely un-costed list of support measures, many of which would particularly benefit the research-intensive Russell Group, coupled with recruitment caps that – again perhaps unwittingly – would have the effect of favouring those institutions already able to grow their market shares . In contrast to the US Government’s rapid response to universities’ pleas for emergency support, providing $14 billion for students and institutions, HM Treasury so far appears unpersuaded by the UUK case for special treatment , although discussions are clearly ongoing.
An alternative set of proposals, possibly resonating better with the post-COVID political zeitgeist, has come from the Million + group of post-’92 institutions , proposing additional funding targeted at expanded provision for ‘key worker’ groups.
What is already apparent is that any special measures to bail out struggling universities – which could mean most of them – will come with strings, possibly requiring rationalisation of provision through mergers and coordinated closures. Articles in the English and Scottish press, speculating on the potential for extensive institutional mergers, have the feel of kite-flying by the respective administrations. Bear in mind the official response to earlier crises in the Further Education sector, which led to widespread mergers and realignment of local provision.
What will the ‘new normal’ look like?
This question remains firmly in the box of ‘unknown unknowns’, as universities and policy-makers start to speculate on potential post-COVID scenarios and global trends. We should perhaps be cautious of the more outlandish predictions of the end of campus-based study and the failure of many institutions. The demise of ‘university education as we know it’ has been confidently predicted for at least 25 years, since the rise of the internet, and the traditional university model has shown remarkable resilience in the face of allegedly existential storms over the years. The responses of the sector to the COVID-19 emergency have revealed hitherto under-developed capabilities that will serve them well in whatever lies ahead: rapid rethinking of teaching and operating models; embracing of online learning and supporting technologies; open-handed co-operation with other institutions and public services. If these qualities can be embedded and taken forward, we can perhaps afford some optimism for the future of the sector.
Mike Boxall is a special adviser to PA Consulting