COVID-19, higher education and the impact on society: what we know so far and what could happen

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Conrad Hughes, Campus & Secondary School Principal, La Grande Boissière, International School of Geneva

  • COVID exposes existing tensions regarding the value of university education.
  • COVID means universities might shrink or implode.
  • Universities are cornerstones of society and must be preserved.

Reports of substantial drops in research funding and precipitous falls in international student enrolments are reaping havoc in the higher-education industry. Most universities are focussed on the base minimal lifeline: keeping enrolment intact above all else as their business model is under threat.

Doubts about the value of a higher education degree have been compounded by the COVID pandemic. One of the core reasons why students enrol in universities is to access the full “college experience” which is, primarily, social.

There is a general consensus that heavy online learning is far from satisfactory and can only go a certain distance in what attention spans can tolerate. Students yearn to enjoy each other’s company at university and in many ways, social gatherings, sororities, fraternities and clubs are the inner core of a university experience.

University life without these elements of social bonding will eventually turn young people away from the extremely expensive prospect of an experience that is already causing huge student debt problems in the United States and other countries. Why pay exorbitant amounts of money to learn online? The pandemic has created a real and serious threat to college degrees that are expensive and of increasingly questionable value, now even less attractive given social restrictions on student life.

An economic collapse of these massified education structures will lead to less global educational provision and therefore intensified elitism and further gaps between those who can afford such an education and those who cannot. There will always be an economic market for top tier universities, even if what they offer is no longer a full social, cultural experience but a far more narrow, pragmatic approach with online lectures and limited face-to-face human interactions.

However, the second and third tier face the risk of implosion: Generation Z students — forecast to earn less than their Generation X parents even before the pandemic — are now facing less employment, less capital to invest in university and possibly less return on that investment. Why go to university at all? Surely it would be better to aim for a start-up right after school?

Was all this coming anyway?

In the 1950s, when universities first started to expand worldwide in domino effect, the prospect of a solid educational pathway leading to job-earning certification was strong; this led to the massification of the higher-education industry.

Subsequent economic growth from the ‘50s to the 2000s meant an increase in the number of university students, and a more developed higher-education infrastructure. As it stands today, there are some 26,000 universities scattered across the globe, multiple ranking systems and numerous sub-industries connected to higher education.

Seen from a different perspective, universities have grown dangerously large and are, subsequently, financially fragile.

Are too many people university qualified anyway?

Since the post-WW2 GI Bill that provides educational assistance to service members, universities have become massified to the point that the value of a degree is being put into serious question anyway.

Not only did the number of PhDs and MAs sky-rocket in the last two decades; the number of first-class passes (“firsts”) increased dramatically too. This lowering of the “scarcity” of university degrees (the scarcity principle being a driver of value) has meant that some have felt that there are just too many university graduates out there.

There is also an ongoing parallel discourse about the intrinsic worth of a university degree, pondering the extent to which it prepares graduates for professional life.

Numerous industries are advertising that they do not require university-graduate job applicants because they seek skills at a tangent to academic knowledge, namely entrepreneurial attitudes and growth mindset.

And here comes the paradox: the humanistic goal as set by the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) of the highest possible level of education for the greatest number of people might end up creating a devaluing of education, as opposed to the acceleration of opportunity that was intended.

Why we must fight to keep universities thriving for the sake of society

Overall, all this has created danger beyond the four walls of universities themselves; these institutions are extremely important for society too, not only because college graduates still earn more than non-college graduates and should, therefore, go to university; but because university is a place where thinking becomes refined, and approaches far more critical, mature and sophisticated.

University is embedded in the bedrock of intellectual production, intellectual freedom and even resistance to dictatorial thought, which is precisely why dictatorships aim to control and repress these mighty institutions.

If we care about a future of free thought and the type of intellectual production that prevents authoritarian, mindless governance, then universities must be kept alive.

—Conrad Hughes

Throughout modern history, student activism has been a strong driver of social change: revolutions from Argentina to the Czech Republic have been driven by students. Martin Luther, back in the 1400s, would have struggled to drive through the Reformation without the activism of students at Wittenberg.

Universities see the powerful confluence of youthful energy, idealism and intellectual progression: the foundations of social progress.

Studies show that university students are more prone to join civic societies and social organisations, leading to a healthy community spirit at district, state and national levels. The very tissue of collective identity is made up of organised and interconnected groups and clubs.

Right now, COVID-19 is threatening the cohesiveness of human relationships: lockdowns are creating a fractured world of isolated individuals experiencing fewer opportunities to congregate than ever before. The consequences could be dramatic, exacerbating the type of atomised society that the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim warned against.

If we care about a future of free thought and the type of intellectual production that prevents authoritarian, mindless governance, then universities must be kept alive.

Likewise, if we wish to see civil society continue to be united by common values and shared experiences, we must defend the institution of the university. And we must do it at all costs: personal investment, state subsidies and private sponsorship.

If we let COVID-19 destroy universities, we will likely lose much more than we could have imagined.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

For how long and at what cost can the ECB continue printing trillions to keep euro area going?

Stigmatized, shunned and shamed, International Widows’ Day draws attention to their unique needs

Whale populations are slowly recovering – this is why

This is how we can feed the planet while saving the ocean

Landmark agreement will protect 100 European Geographical Indications in China

The cost of generating renewable energy has fallen – a lot

Nicaragua ‘crisis’ still cause for concern amid murder, torture allegations: Bachelet

Is there a cure for corruption in Greece?

EU, Brazil to hold high level Summit in Brasilia

Five avoidable deaths per minute shows urgent need for action on patient safety

Top envoy to Yemen praises ‘flexibility’ of chief negotiators as new UN mission chief is named

Madagascar villagers learn dangers of outdoor defecation

EU confronts environmental threats as global leaders attempt to revive the global sentiment at NYC climate week

FROM THE FIELD: Weeding out Mexico’s unwanted beach invader

Aid stepped up to Syria camp; new arrivals say terrorists blocked their escape

“An open China brings opportunities to Europe”, a Sting Exclusive by China’s Ambassador to EU

Malaysia can show the way towards a holistic model for human rights

World ‘off track’ to meet most Sustainable Development Goals on hunger, food security and nutrition

Political consensus critical ahead of Somalia election: UN mission chief

World Pride underscores that all people are born ‘free and equal’ in dignity and human rights

More answers from Facebook ahead of Parliament hearing today

EU budget: Stepping up the EU’s role as a security and defence provider

A Sting Exclusive: “Europe must be more ambitious in COP21 and lead on climate finance and sustainable development”, Green UK MEP Jean Lambert points out from Brussels

Re-thinking citizenship education: bringing young people back to the ballot box

Historical success for the First ever European Presidential Debate

The EU slams Theresa May’s Brexit option; sets base for own European defense, security platform

Health privatization to blame for health inequality or poor investment in public health?

Korea must enhance detection and reinforce sanctions to boost foreign bribery enforcement

Italian elections: a long political limbo is ahead

Despite setbacks, ‘political will’ to end Yemen war stronger than ever: top UN envoy

Children’s rights: combatting exploitation, forced marriage and sexual abuse

What the buoyant US economy means for the rest of the world

Dozens of children at risk as clashes in Hudaydah near hospital – UNICEF

This electric plane has flown successfully for 30 minutes – is this the future of flying?

The EU sides with China against the US; but has Germany capitulated to America?

Trump ‘used’ G20 to side with Putin and split climate and trade packs

The Venezuelan exodus to Roraima and its repercussions

Historic first, as Tolstoy’s War and Peace lands in Geneva, to mark international centenary

EU to pay a dear price if the next crisis catches Eurozone stagnant and deflationary; dire statistics from Eurostat

UNICEF delivers medical supplies to Gaza in wake of deadly protests

What is systemic racism, and how can we combat it?

European Commission welcomes the positive assessment about how it has managed the EU budget

To build a resilient world, we must go circular. Here’s how to do it

Why cyber-risk should take centre stage in financial services

Security Union: Significant progress and tangible results over past years but efforts must continue

Sudan: New political transition, bolstered by peacebuilding, could bring long-term stability to Darfur, Security Council told

OECD presents revised Codes on capital flows to G20

Tech companies could achieve much more by serving the common good. Here’s 3 steps they should take

European Business Summit 2014 Launch Event: “Energising Industrial Growth”

What’s happening to Greenland will affect the whole world – and our leaders need to understand why

Humanitarian Aid: €10.5 million for South and South East Asia

EuroLat: serious concern about migration and support to multilateral trade

Three ways Finland leads the world – and education isn’t one of them

Why are the Balkans’ political leaders meeting in Geneva this week?

17 ways technology could change the world by 2025

We probably should go back to the therapy in Primary Healthcare

US-China trade war is a ‘lose-lose’ situation for them and the world, warn UN economists

Drones, disinfectant, distancing – Europe’s beaches open up

Everything you need to know about the US government shutdown

144 years on, Universal Postal Union meets to define its 21st Century role

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s