Universities brace for a post-pandemic world

Posted on Thursday, April 9, 2020

An empty classroom

The last financial crisis took a toll on universities. Will this one change them forever?

This piece was originally published on Apolitical on April 6, 2020. It was written by Michael A. O'Neill from the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Like colleagues in universities across the globe, I too was forced to make overnight pedagogical transitions from traditional face-to-face instruction to an entirely online teaching as a result of Covid-19 containment measures.

Thankfully, and with the support of the University's learning technology specialists, my colleagues and I were ready to complete the semester digitally within 48 hours. And, as I write these lines, the decision has been made to proceed with the next semester entirely online.

While university faculty and administrators should be understandably proud of the resilience and agility demonstrated in their efforts at teaching continuity, we have perhaps not considered sufficiently how this may impact the future of universities as institutions and an area of public policy.

Revisiting 2008

Let's consider the policy impacts first. Across the OECD, education is the public sector's second largest area of public spending after health care.

Education therefore competes with other government priorities for scarce public resources. Across the globe, governments are the main funders of universities, either directly through publicly funded institutions or indirectly through student aide programs. Research, the core mission and raison d'être of universities, is similarly dependent on public funding.

Though it is difficult to point to a situation identical to the current Covid-19 crisis, the 2008 financial crisis may be a reasonable analogue in terms of its impact on the public sector. And what was this impact? As numbers from UNESCO's Institute for Statistics show, in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis public spending on universities was either flat or declined across most Western industrialised countries. Will the university sector experience similar austerity once again?

Some will argue that universities exited the financial crisis relatively unscathed and it is true that once the shock of the 2008 crisis passed, the university sector grew at a fast pace across OECD countries. However, I would argue that what in fact occurred was a near textbook definition of unplanned and uncoordinated public policy at the expense of students and faculty.

The spectre of mass-MOOCification

For example, in the name of austerity, many governments deregulated tuition fees leading to students having to shoulder a larger share of the cost of their education.

Increased tuition undoubtedly benefited some institutions in the higher education sector, but society-wide this policy contributed to a student debt crisis in several countries. Though Governments across the OECD are scrambling to temporarily shield students from high student debt, what hope is there for students to repay these loans? And, these temporary fixes do not address the key question of whether it is sound public policy to use student loans as a conduit to transfer money to postsecondary institutions.

Another unfortunate impact of increased tuition was to cancel out the socio-economic levelling effect of higher education that in the past enabled students from modest backgrounds to improve their employment and economic opportunities. Though there are few recent international studies that show the net impact of high tuition on higher education participation rates, studies done in specific jurisdictions suggest that tuition fee increases have a negative impact on the university participation of low-income students, with an unknown cost to society in the long run.

This is not to argue that the university sector wasn't ready for reform, but that the cumulative impact of these reforms were never holistically assessed at the society-wide level and public sector as whole.

Undoubtedly, we can expect some voices to demand sweeping reforms of the public sector as a response to the crisis, and universities are unlikely to be spared.

For example, some might argue that the mass transition to remote teaching shows that university education can be delivered just as effectively and much more efficiently digitally than in-person. They say that tremendous savings in physical infrastructure and administrative costs are to be found by moving students online. Who needs a large auditorium when an online course faces potentially no limitations in registration? Looking at recent media and opinion leader commentary, I fear that mass-MOOCification will be called for as a fiscally prudent and financially affordable means to deliver higher education.

Post-pandemic budgets

Even before Covid-19, many were questioning the relationship between the curriculum and pedagogy of universities and the labour market. At the time many of these calls grew out of the changing nature of work and the workplace brought on by globalisation, demography, and technology. Emerging from a major economic downturn, it is likely that public sector decision-makers and economic stakeholders will draw increased attention to this relationship with new calls for curriculum reform.

For example, in Canada's Province of Ontario, the master funding agreement between the government and universities stipulates that the performance will be assessed on post-graduation employment rates. Once Covid-19 is behind us and in the event governments tighten the taps on public funding, it is likely that calls for university funding and curriculum reform may become more frequent.

This raises important issues for how governments assess the performance of universities given the new fiscal and financial context.

Whereas governments traditionally relied on the input and output measures (e.g. funding, enrolment and graduation rates) to assess the performance of universities, new approaches will be needed in a post-pandemic world. This may include consideration for other factors, for example the social and economic contribution of the university to its community.

The post Covid-19 economic, social and fiscal environment will cause governments to think differently about how they approach resourcing decisions for the public sector. Universities will be part of that equation.

One hopes that in contrast to the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, governments will take a horizontal approach to decision-making. This will require whole-of-government and an education system-wide approach that reduces institutional and other barriers in the interest of linking funding to outcomes to the benefit of students, governments, institutions and taxpayers.

Exiting the Covid-19 crisis with depleted budgetary capacity, governments will face stark choices in terms of their public spending priorities. These choices will be particularly difficult given the need to spur economic activity and support workers and businesses in what we all hope will be a short transition back to economic normality.

At the same time the challenges governments were contending with have not gone away: changing demography, globalisation, climate change, etc. remain high on the public policy agenda. In this context, the education system as a whole, and the university sector in particular, will be thrown into competition for resources and policy-makers' attention with other public policy sectors. Sector leaders should already be preparing their arguments for how universities contribute to the economy and society. One hopes universities do so in a way that extends beyond their walls. — Michael A. O'Neill

For more information: media@uottawa.ca 

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