The Coming Disruption of Higher Education

I went back into the classroom in the third week of September to greet a very enthusiastic group of MA students from across the globe.  Many of them were in the classroom.  We are one of the very few parts of Johns Hopkins universe that is teaching in person.  Many of the students were also on Zoom.  We started class in the evening in Italy; my American students were straddling lunch time; my students in China were burning the late-night oil.  The experience of being with them was a breath of fresh air after a long time at home.  If you ignored the masks, the social distancing, and the ban on any kind of organized celebration, it almost felt like things might possibly be returning to normal – almost, but not quite.  And I doubt they ever will.

Everyone can see the impact that the novel coronavirus pandemic has had on education. From one day to the next, public authorities recognized that children could not go to school and ‘social distance’ at the same time. Neither could adolescents in high school or adults in university. But closing schools and universities meant creating a radically different educational experience. Home schooling was always meant to be an option, where it exists. Suddenly, it became ubiquitous.

The emergency solution was meant to be temporary. Schools exist for reasons that go far beyond education. Not only do they provide children and adolescents with critical social experience, but they also make it possible for parents to participate in the workplace. Indeed, those other motives lie at the heart of the debate about opening schools while the pandemic is still spreading.

The social, psychological, and emotional cost of isolation for children – coupled with the economic consequences for their families – poses a long-term risk to society. Each day that the schools are closed chips away at the development of human capital, household incomes, and productive technology. Indeed, that risk may exceed the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, even with its potential for lasting health consequences and its terrible death toll. So long as the pandemic continues, societies will face a painful choice. However, no one doubts that schools will return to something close to normal once the novel coronavirus is vanquished.

Universities are different

The same cannot be said for higher education. The debate about restarting schools is raging across society. The debate about restarting universities is important only for the universities themselves. Of course, students prefer to ‘go’ to university, to have the in-class experience, to mingle with their friends, and to benefit from the many facilities that universities have to offer. But that preference in no way compares to the threat posed by the pandemic to students, faculty, staff, and their families – not to mention the wider public. Universities are like cruise ships without the water around them; even the best precautions cannot prevent contagion coming into the university from the outside, and then spreading from the university to the surrounding community.

Even quality of education is not a real issue when we talk about post-secondary institutions. The students are all adults and so capable of self-learning. The debate about whether university students learn more in the classroom than via online or remote instruction is open. Each mode of education has its relative advantages. The intellectual exchange in a classroom is stimulating, but only if there is real exchange; ex cathedra lectures work better when pre-recorded and placed online where they can be watched in short bursts, indexed, searched, and repeated. As for student interaction, free-flowing verbal discussions are spontaneous; written contributions to discussion forums are more thoughtful and more enduring.

The balance in terms of educational experience may tip one way or another, but never so decisively as to overcome health considerations – either individual or public. Clearly everyone prefers the social experience that universities have to offer, but that is just one experience among many that societies will have to forego in the interests of public health. The pandemic presents social sacrifice as a package. That is why offering students the chance to go to university in person only if they maintain strict social distancing in every other context is not a viable option. Both Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina tried that formula; it took only days to collapse.

The question is whether higher education will ever return to something like the pre-pandemic normal. The likelihood is much lower than it is for schools. The reason is two-fold. First, and most obviously, the novel coronavirus has exposed the fragility of university balance sheets and business models. Second, and more fundamentally, the reaction of universities to the pandemic has revealed just how outdated the model for higher education has become over the past nine centuries.

Balance sheets

To understand the fragility of university business models, you only need to look at their facilities. Most universities centre around a mix of office buildings, teaching space, and research laboratories. Many also include dormitories, hospitals, and recreational space. These are huge capital assets that need to be built, financed, serviced, and maintained. Often, they sit on prime real estate in major capital cites like Rome, Paris, London, or New York. Alternatively, they nestle in rolling parkland campuses (which require even more dorms to hold students and more recreational facilities to entertain them).

Each institution claims to attract students with the brilliance of its faculty. However, the students themselves have little information with which to compare one group of academics to another, beyond a vague sense of prestige and reputation. Hence the real competition revolves around the ‘student experience’. Shiny and new attracts students away from drab and worn; more facilities attract students away from fewer. It is small wonder, therefore, that many universities incurred huge debts to finance the modernization and expansion of their assets. Those debts need to be serviced.

But suddenly university students no longer have access to the experience those facilities offer. This may not be a problem for prestigious institutions, whose names continue to attract, but it is a potential crisis for institutions that now cannot repay the money they borrowed to build out the university experience. This problem is most acute where students pay high rates of tuition, as in the Anglo-Saxon world. That is where the debate about reopening universities is most intense.

However, even public institutions in Continental Europe are going to have a hard time justifying their financial requirements when the facilities they built with government finances lie vacant and their aggressive modernization and expansion plans are on hold. Here it is worth remembering that while private universities compete with one-another for student tuition, public universities have to compete with schools for government finances – and right now, schools are the priority. The political constituency for universities is almost too small to matter as the dust settles after this pandemic.

Educational model

More important, there is a real debate starting about whether the ‘university experience’ is worth the investment either for individuals who pay tuition or for governments that underwrite university budgets. Here it is worth returning to the relative merits of online versus in-person education. The open debate about the advantages of different modes of engagement is only happening because universities everywhere were forced to experiment. Universities have long talked about the potential advantages of using technology more aggressively and some have pioneered the delivery of online degree courses, but the predominant model for higher education still bears the imprint of its medieval origins albeit with some tweaks that were introduced with the creation of research universities at the height of the industrial revolution and again in the 1960s with the expansion of higher education to the masses.

That model revolves around the idea that a specific cohort of students will meet together at the same time and place with faculty to exchange ideas. Students who stay in that model long enough earn degrees for their achievement. Sometimes they take a break to meet with other students in other places as a form of exchange. Even more rarely they earn degrees by splitting their time between two or more institutions. But whatever the formula, the basic model for higher education has remained bounded by those three building blocks – cohort, time, and place. Think of the nine-century old University of Bologna; not only do administrators have offices in beautiful medieval palaces, but there are families in that city that have lived for generations on the income they earned renting rooms to students.

The pandemic has revealed that university students do not need to be in the same place to pursue their education. Indeed, as students scattered home during the pandemic, remote teaching often involved participants in different countries, continents, and time zones. Meanwhile, as academics became more familiar with new technologies and teaching methods, university administrators have begun investing much more heavily in the development of truly online education. Teaching online is different from teaching remotely because students engage with the material more flexibility during the days or weeks of their participation. In other words, neither place nor time plays such an important role in the model for higher education anymore – at least potentially.

Yet if students can live away from the university and if they can engage more flexibly with their coursework, it becomes harder to justify that they should stay out of the workforce entirely. Seeking employment may lengthen the time required to get a degree, but it will lower the opportunity cost of getting an education, it will mix intellectual achievement with professional skills development, and it will create habits that look a lot more like ‘life-long learning’ than degree certification. These are all advantages that will appeal both to families and to governments. The implication is that the notion of ‘cohort’ will lose importance along the way.

The future of higher education

A university that is no longer bound to a model of higher education that is rooted in cohort, time, and place, will not need to invest in such large facilities. It will focus less on the university experience and more on access to and quality of education – not just for students leaving school and hoping one day to enter the workplace, but for anyone who seeks to expand their horizons no matter what their other commitments. Such a university will continue to foster basic research and to nurture future academics, but at a lower cost and with greater benefits for society.

This future does not rule out the possibility that some institutions will continue to operate as they always have done. The most well-endowed and the most prestigious institutions will continue to attract students who want the traditional university experience. However, the fact that these institutions are leading the way in this revolution of higher education suggests that even they have recognized the imperative for change. The best among them acknowledged this need many years ago and so have a head start relative to the competition. The novel coronavirus has spread the disruption throughout higher education. The new normal for schools may be much what existed before the pandemic, but universities will be forever changed, and society will change along with them.

This piece was originally published in Italian as ‘Come cambia la formazione’ in the September/October 2020 issue of Eastwest. The manuscript went into production on 18 August 2020.  I added the opening paragraph for this post.  The photo at the top features the director of online learning at SAIS, Pratima Enfield.  She and her team are our bridge to the future, whatever that future may look like.