Jo Johnson

Will the Covid crisis turn into a university crisis?

Will the Covid crisis turn into a university crisis?
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Text settings

A big question hangs over British universities. With open days cancelled, visa offices and language testing centres closed, incomes dented and long-haul travel unreliable, just how many international students will enrol this September and what will vice-chancellors do to survive without them?

As students from the global south scramble home, governments in English-speaking countries, which dominate the global education industry, are waking up to the existential threat their absence poses to universities young and old.

The UK’s ability to bounce back will be gravely impaired if international students are no longer around to underpin the foundations of institutions central to our performance as a knowledge economy.

A drop in international student numbers of potentially 50 to 75 per cent will threaten the vitality of dozens of mid-sized British university towns from Chichester to Newcastle and send into reverse one of the great boom businesses of the globalised economy.

There are few sectors of the world economy in which the UK is globally competitive.

International education has been one of them, despite years of inept policy from a Home Office desperate to manage down numbers because of the foolish inclusion of students in the (now thankfully abandoned) 100,000 net migration target.

Britain is second only to the US in its share of some five million overseas students, although it risks being overtaken by Australia, Canada and China itself, now a major destination for outward-bound learners as well as the biggest source of them.

In the absence of other government funding, sustaining excellence in a system that currently boasts three universities in the world’s top ten and no fewer than 31 in the world’s top 200 would simply be impossible without them.

The £7 billion they bring in fees provides an annual cross-subsidy that compensates for losses incurred in research and the teaching of high-cost subjects. These include not just laboratory-based sciences but also courses vital for our creative industries.

That’s why international students account for six out of ten learners at Imperial College, which consistently features in the global top ten, and 56 per cent at University of the Arts London, number two in the world for art and design in the QS World University Rankings.

Across the sector, this loss of revenues will force governments to choose between costly bailouts, forced mergers and disorderly failures that push tens of thousands of students onto the streets and into a labour market already in turmoil.

So far, a plea from lobbyists Universities UK for a sector-specific bailout package has gone largely unanswered.

Barring a £100 million dollop of research funding and the bringing forward of £2.6 billion of tuition fee payments, universities have been told to manage their financial risks with the same grant, loan and furlough schemes available to others.

To say the sector feels unloved is an understatement.

It is a victim of its own relentless growth, itself a function of the poor quality of the alternatives, a demand-led higher education funding model and, above all, the changing occupational structure of the workforce.

Jobs pre the current Covid-19 crisis were overwhelmingly being created in the sectors that disproportionately employ graduates, which is why the sector is expanding in all high innovation knowledge economies, from Israel to South Korea.

But the message to the sector from government is clear: any university approaching the Treasury for special treatment can expect to emerge in a very different shape following a rigorous debt workout.

Forced mergers and the closure of programmes deemed to be offering low quality or poor value for money will be the order of the day, even if measuring this objectively will prove to be immensely challenging.

The tough love approach reflects disillusion with the continued expansion of higher education, amid evidence of dubious marketing techniques, rampant grade inflation and rising numbers in non-graduate roles five years after their finals.

Even though the idea that shrinking the proportion of young people with higher levels of education is the route to greater productivity has no evidence supporting it, gone too are the days when governments set ambitious targets for university expansion.

When the Blairite 50 per cent milestone was reached last year, it was greeted with hostility by the growing number in Westminster who want to prune universities in the belief this will prompt more school-leavers to undertake technical and vocational training.

Indeed, unlike every other sector of the economy stricken by Covid-19, the business of charging domestic students £9,250 per annum in taxpayer-underwritten fees for three-year bachelor degrees is one the government would happily see shrink.

The return of domestic student number controls, ostensibly on a temporary basis to prevent an unseemly scramble to backfill places left empty by international students this September, will in time turn into a tool to dial back the expansion of the sector. It will make international students more keenly sought after than ever.

Those institutions that have the financial reserves to ride out the storm this coming academic year will find that pessimism about the medium-term future for international education is overblown.

Students and scholars leaving their homes in search of education and knowledge is hardly a new phenomenon. It will resume.

The push factors behind international education remain strong. In key developing countries, the mismatch between qualified students and available places at prestigious institutions will remain acute for the foreseeable future.

Driven by growth of the middle classes in Asian and African developing countries, the demand for higher education is set to increase from 160 million students in 2015 to over 414 million by 2030, according to UNESCO.

To meet that surge, the world would have to build four universities that serve 80,000 students every week, every year – and that’s not going to happen.

The two largest nations in the world, China and India, which account for a quarter of overseas students, cannot accommodate student demand for higher education within their borders. They are far from unique.

UK universities cannot expect plums to fall in their laps. The disruption from coronavirus could accelerate a new and very different phase of growth for international education. Traditionally, it has been a privilege reserved for those who either have money or the know-how to secure financial aid. In future, its benefits will be likely to reach a much wider pool of talent.

In future, students will head in different directions. The flow of talent is today still surprisingly one-way: clever young people from the developing world take their skills and talents to richer countries in the global north.

As developing countries seek to improve their own league table performance and welcome overseas students themselves, international education will cease to be considered in terms of a mainly Western and English-speaking archetype.

The crisis will accelerate take-up of online, distance-learning and blended courses that combine digital teaching and classroom interaction with traditional place-based learning. These will be of interest to mid-income families unconvinced by the return on investment from traditional multi-year overseas programmes.

Notwithstanding heroic efforts by universities to move to a virtual teaching environment, the crisis has exposed the extent to which UK universities have been lagging the best around the world in preparing for the new digital opportunities.

The most far-sighted institutions are already in a position to turn this crisis into an opportunity. Others are clearly scrambling to provide anything resembling a coherent online offering. They will pay a steep price in student satisfaction.

Demand for the traditional multi-year programmes of overseas study will return in time for the groups who’ve always accessed it. Online teaching will not replace face-to-face education in the long-term for those students wanting kudos and status benefits from real-life academic study. 

UK universities can’t count on the good times coming back overnight. There are many steps for government to take to ensure we come out of the blocks faster than our competitors. But an international education market that is more accessible, less elitist and less carbon-intensive will be at least one good thing to come out of the corona crunch.

Written byJo Johnson

Jo Johnson is a former universities minister, chairman of Tes Global and president’s professorial fellow at King’s College London

Topics in this articleSociety