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Uncanny University – Covid-19 could push some universities to the limit | Briefing

D EU SE to be completed in 2045229012]The $ 141 million data science center at Boston University will rise above the city as an uneven Jenga tower, providing 350,000 feet squares of space. The University of Reading in Britain has almost finished a £ 50 million ($ 65 million) life science building, designed to make more room for subjects that appeal to many students. The University of New South Wales ( UNSW ) in Australia has injected more than A $ 500m ($ 360m) into new facilities, as part of a project to take it to the top 50 in the world ranking.

If these plans made sense in a world where students were crossing borders en masse, today they seem deranged. All three institutions are now considering cuts. Boston has said that some employees are likely to have to be fired or laid off. Reading has announced that 15% of full-time jobs at the university are on the line. UNSW has already cut 8% of its staff and closed two of its eight faculties. Plans for new facilities are on hold at all three universities.

Covid-19 has put great pressure on all universities. But the problems are about to become particularly severe for those in the United States, Australia, Canada and Great Britain who have come to depend on international students to fill their coffers. There are now more than 5 million students, compared to 2 million in 2000. In Australia, foreign students provide a quarter of university income (see Table 1). In Canada, tuition fees for a science degree at McGill, one of the best universities in the country, cost C $ 45,656 ($ 34,000) a year for a foreign student, compared to C $ 2,623 for a local one.

Even before the pandemic, many of those universities were concerned about worsening relations with China, the largest source of international students. And higher education in the United States, Australia, and Britain has also faced growing skepticism from conservatively-leaning governments about the value of a college degree. Academics, accustomed to difficult questions, now face an existential: how will universities survive with far fewer students?

The problem is that campuses are an excellent breeding ground for the virus and the students who traveling all over the world are a good way to spread it. A study by Cornell researchers found that while the average college student shares classes with only 4% of their peers, they share a class with someone who shares a class with 87%. The potential for a rapid spread of the disease was demonstrated by the arrival of recruits at Fort Benning, a US Army base. When 640 arrived in the spring, only four tested positive. A few weeks later, more than a hundred did. According to the New York Times some 6,600 cases of covid-19 can be linked to American universities.

Welcome to Virtual Rookie Week

Many speakers are understandably reluctant to approach students. In July, a letter from the President of the University of Colorado Boulder, seen by The Economist pressured staff to teach in person, warning that not doing so "simply shifts the burden of this vital mode of instruction to others members of the faculty ”. In fact, at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, most American universities planned to open for in-person teaching. Now they are not so sure. According to data collected by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, less than a quarter of universities will teach in full or mostly in person the next term (another quarter has yet to decide what to do).

Even if the teachers turn in person, many students will not. Harshita Bhatia, a 24-year-old woman from Mumbai, was supposed to start a master's degree in economics at the Australian National University in July. He put it off until February, not wanting to miss out on the full experience of college life in another country. The survey conducted by QS a consulting firm, suggests that four out of ten students may cancel or defer their plans to study abroad. More will do so if the registration goes online. In Australia, student visa applications have been reduced by a third this year.

Strict regimes are emerging in places that welcome students. At Harvard, where 13% of last year's intake came from abroad, only 40% of undergraduates will return for the first quarter of the new year, and the rest will continue to learn from afar. Those on campus will be screened for the virus every three days and will sign contracts promising no guests in their dormitories. Bolton University in the north of England aims to create a "safe for the greedy" campus, so it can open in September. To get to class, students will need to go through a body temperature scanner, where they will be provided with masks and hand sanitizer. The university has purchased 1,000 bicycles to loan to students, so they do not have to take public transportation.

Viruses as a company

The risk is that, beyond the conference room, young people will ignore many restrictions In July, the University of California, Berkeley reported an outbreak involving 47 cases of covid-19, and most can be traced back to parties in fraternities and sororities. At the time, administrators urged students to hold meetings of fewer than 12 people, keep them outside, stay at least six feet apart, and cover their faces; Since then they have announced that all classes will be online and only 3,200 of the university's 40,000 students will be able to live on campus.

Even for students moving into their dormitories, a lot of teaching will be online. A video from Johns Hopkins University promotes its new "on-campus studios" for conferences, with the idea that students can participate in conferences from the safety of their rooms. Such Zoom lectures can accelerate a long-lasting trend. Online education providers such as Coursera have not revolutionized higher education, as was typically predicted in the early 2010s, but they have carved out a niche in the marketplace, primarily offering business-focused classes to older students. Over the past five years or so, an increasing number of universities have started offering degrees online, sometimes in association with "online program managers." In the United States, an estimated one in three postgraduates was studying fully online last year, compared with one in five in 2012.

This number now seems to increase. In May Dan Tehan, the Australian minister of education, offered funds for short online courses on subjects considered "national priorities" such as teaching and engineering that would last six months, with fees ranging from A $ 1,250 to A $ 2,500. "We want to allow people, instead of choking on Netflix, to start studying," he said. UNSW has announced plans to offer more remote courses. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University who runs his own education website, predicts a large increase in online learning.

Many students, however, prefer to teach in person. Last year, only one in seven American college students earned an online degree, estimates Richard Garrett of Eduventures, a consulting firm. International students also tend to want "cultural immersion" from another country, he says. Many gravitate toward big cities: In the United States, New York University is home to most international students at 19,605; in Great Britain, it is University College London, with 19,635. The experience of any city, with all the possibilities for exploration and romance that urban life offers, even in semi-blocked conditions, cannot be reproduced through video calls in the parents' living room.

The prospect now for international students is a much less engaging college experience, either totally virtual or totally surreal. Despite this, they will face little chance of lower rates. The University of Adelaide is one of the few universities to have reduced prices, offering students a 20% “Covid-19 Offshore Study Fee Refund” provided they confirm their place. Privately, British university administrators hope to make greater use of discounts (excuse me, "scholarships") to attract foreign students, but they will try not to advertise that. Many universities argue that the education students receive will be as good as before the pandemic. It remains to be seen how many students (and parents) will buy this. As a university counselor working at a school in Xi'an in China asks: "Without all the experience, why pay $ 50-60k for online courses that you can get on Coursera?"

For those Students who are not discouraged These changes, other problems are looming. The collapse of air travel means that there may not be enough flights. Bolton is one of a number of British universities that plans to bring students directly from China and India. "We can rent a 300-person aircraft for around £ 300,000," explains George Holmes, the vice chancellor. The representatives would meet students in Delhi; upon arrival, they would be taken to a hotel or corridors to quarantine. The university would largely subsidize the costs.

In fact, entry restrictions currently prevent students from reaching many countries. Since February, all Chinese visitors have been banned from entering Australia. Pilot programs to fly in groups of a few hundred students were abandoned as the number of local cases increased. Currently, Canada will not allow the entry of students who did not obtain a visa before March. Some Indian students can enter the United States, but not Chinese. Both would be welcome in Britain, as long as they were quarantined for fifteen days.

In July, the Trump administration abandoned plans to terminate international student visas at universities that had moved to exclusively online teaching, challenges from various universities, including Harvard and MIT . But later that month, he announced that first-year students won't be able to enter the country if they don't have courses in person. Embassies and consulates have begun to open, but it is not clear whether they will be able to overcome the accumulation of backlogged visas.

All of this spells trouble. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies ( IFS ), a group of British experts, predicts that British universities will lose the equivalent of a quarter of their annual income, and high-ranking institutions will suffer higher losses (see table 2). Four leading Australian universities – UNSW Sydney, Melbourne and Monash – receive more than a third of their earnings from foreign students. All over the world, prestigious universities recruit the most globetrotters.

Some of these institutions are at risk. And yet, for the most part, elite universities are well positioned to overcome the crisis thanks to strong cash reserves and the ability to borrow more generously. It is highly unlikely that higher levels will have difficulties for students for a long time. “If you are a prestigious institution, people are not going to turn down a hard-earned opportunity to get a diploma that has a lot of brand value, even if earning it turns out to be less fun and more inconvenient than they thought. it would be, "thinks Kevin Carey of New America, a group of experts.

Socially distant study partners

Instead, they are likely to be midrange and low-ranking universities. most at risk, particularly those institutions with less prestigious brands that, however, have managed to attract many international students (or, in the United States, from other states, which also pay higher fees). IFS considers that the British universities with the highest risk of insolvency, of which it says that there are 13, responsible for teaching 5% of British students, are those that entered the pandemic with weak finances, according to the Center for the Study of University of Melbourne Higher Education, only Monash is among the seven that are at "high risk."

The uneven effects of greedy on university finances can be seen in the behavior of American universities. Over the past few months, state middle schools and liberal arts colleges have been much slower to announce reduced campus access so as not to discourage potential students. Even before the crisis, a demographic drop in the number of 18-year-olds had caused the closure or merger of some 50 universities. That's a small part of America's 4,000 higher education institutions, but the trend is now likely to accelerate as universities lose money on housing and funding from state capitals.

Lobbyists around the world have asked for bail. -out. Australia's universities estimated that their members' revenues would fall by A $ 3 billion to A $ 4.6 billion. British universities called for a package of measures that would have reached £ 3.2 billion; American colleges for about $ 50 billion. However, in all countries the money has been limited. Congress gave American universities about $ 14 billion in March. In Britain some funding has been provided and loans will be offered to cover 80% of lost income for international students, but only at research-focused universities. In Australia, the government will cut the lost income of domestic students, but not that of foreign students.

Part of the reason for such reluctant bailouts is that governments are waiting to see how bad things get. But in an age when politics is increasingly divided along educational lines, between the haves and the have-nots, universities seem to have little influence over politicians who see themselves as the rostrum of the latter group. American universities are unlikely to receive much support from the Donald Trump administration. President Trump has complained that universities focus on "Left radical indoctrination, not education," and has asked the Treasury to reexamine his tax-exempt state.

Elsewhere in the Anglosphere, governments want universities to focus more on employment. As universities have grown, so have concerns about "return on investment," says Peter Hurley of the Mitchell Institute at the University of Victoria. In Great Britain, ministers are concerned by the IFS research that finds that one fifth of graduates would be better off if they had not gone to university.

In both Australia and Great Britain governments have funded the expansion of higher education by passing more of the cost on to students, through higher fees. But since they also offer income-dependent loans, the state ends up paying a large chunk of the bill. In Britain, the government has said that universities taking out Covid loans will need to focus more on subjects that earn high wages (such as engineering) or are seen as particularly important to the country (such as teaching). Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, has also raised the possibility of introducing differential fees (the cost of all subjects is currently capped at £ 9,250) and has promised reforms to boost vocational education.

Mr. Johnson has said he can continue to Australia, where the government plans more than double the cost of the humanities courses while lowering fees for subjects it considers to be in areas of future job growth or otherwise important, including clinical psychology and agriculture. However, some Australian higher education experts doubt that the reforms will achieve their goals. Because students don't pay in advance for their degrees, but instead receive generous government loans, many suspect that altering the amount they pay for subjects won't have much effect. The same would be true in England.

In addition to this, the three governments have taken more aggressive positions towards China. The deterioration in relations between the United States and China over the past four years has contributed to a slowdown in the number of international students crossing the Pacific. Australian and British universities now worry that they face the same fate. In June, the Chinese Ministry of Education urged students to "exercise caution" before studying in Australia due to discrimination against those of Asian descent during the pandemic; something widely seen as a response to the Australian government's decision to request an investigation into the origin of covid-19. Britain's opposition to a new national security law in Hong Kong has angered Beijing.

Virtual versus vocational

Universities have some reason for hope. One is that future students don't have much more to do. "The gap year does not seem very attractive, the job market does not seem very attractive," says Matt Durnin of the British Council, which promotes the country's education abroad. The other is that in a recession there is usually a spike in the number of students.

Still, the next few months are likely to transform the fortunes of many institutions. Some will shut down completely. If the pandemic lasts, if you don't get a vaccine, or if the economic climate becomes particularly bad, things will get even bleaker. Politicians will have more to think about than protect universities. The first two decades of the 21st century were of extraordinary growth for universities in many countries. That golden age is over.

This article appeared in the Briefing section of the print edition under the title "Uncanny University"

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