This is not an article about the millions of people worldwide suffering from the pandemic, COVID-19. This is not an article about locked down cities, overwhelmed medical facilities, stock market declines, tattered travel plans or cancelled national and international conferences, sporting events, and concerts.
This is an article written for the full-time and part-time faculty, researchers, and doctoral students who have been, and will continue to be, impacted by the pandemic. No one knows when this crisis will be over or when life as we knew it will be restored. What we do know is that whether you are a teacher, student or researcher your academic and administrative life will be different.
Recognizing that it is unwise to make predictions about the future, I do think COVID-19 will impact higher education long after the pandemic is no longer a threat to human life and an economic and higher education disrupter.
The lens through which I look is cloudy, at best. Disruptions and upheavals are not the usual companions of logic and reason. And the dark alchemy of fear and uncertainty walk the halls of academic institutions worldwide, often paralyzing clear thinking and bold decision making.
COVID-19 is estimated to cost American colleges and universities $41 billion. Many colleges and universities, even before the pandemic, were struggling financially and stuck with business models that no longer made sense.
Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded higher education’s outlook in the United States from stable to negative. Michael Osborn, a vice president who monitors universities at Moody’s, wrote: “Just over 30% of public universities and nearly 30% of private universities were already running operating deficits.”
According to Forbes’ 2019 College Financial Grades ranking, some 675 of the 933 private-not-for profit colleges scored a grade of C and below, meaning their balance sheets are weak and their operations are fragile.
What will this mean for faculty, researchers and graduate and doctoral students? Some schools may close or merge as a result of the financial strain brought about by fewer national and international students. Some schools may close or merge departments. Most schools will increase online teaching and decrease classroom instruction. For many professors, this will mean re-organizing how they teach their courses and grade their students.
We don’t know how grades will be awarded for the spring semester. We don’t know how college transcripts will record this period in time. We don’t know how colleges and universities will hold graduation ceremonies. We don’t know when the fall semester will begin, how many first-year students will enroll and how many second year students will return.
All of these uncertainties will and must impact teaching and research priorities.
As a researcher who focuses on international student mobility, I was already working on a research project. COVID-19 changed the focus of my future research projects because international student mobility has been disrupted by the pandemic, perhaps forever. For example, international deans and recruiters can no longer count on a certain number of students coming from China, the largest source of international students in the United States. I doubt American colleges and universities will ever realize the number of Chinese students previously
enrolled in the United States. The financial implications need no explanation.
Some of you reading this article may be forced, like me, to press the pause button on current research projects because of changed priorities of your college or university.
Many of you reading this article regularly attend national and international conferences to meet with colleagues, present papers and share research projects. Maybe you were planning to teach for a semester or year at an international school. Because of the pandemic, most colleges and universities have banned travel for faculty and staff. Once the crisis passes, teleconferencing, zoom
meetings and conference calls may replace face-to-face meetings.
We are living in a world where norms are constantly unraveling 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.
There may be some opportunities that will be the legacy of COVID-19.
Demand for higher education is not inelastic. Increasing costs, stagnant revenues, changing demographics, increased competition for students, and a decline in the “value” of a college degree, will force higher education leaders to re-examine antiquated business models, re-examine annual tuition cost increases and encourage collaboration, rather than competition, between schools.
Academic and administrative discussions are taking place all across the country to restructure the academic year, change semester lengths, and move away from seat-time as the prime model for earning credit.
Consider the following:
“In 1665, Cambridge University closed because of the plague. Isaac Newton decided to work from home. He discovered calculus and the laws of motion. Just saying.”
Paddy Cosgrove, chief executive of Web Summit