COVID-Adaptation Scenarios: HIGHER EDUCATION

The Issue:

June is normally one of the busiest months in the university academic calendar. Examinations are taken, lecture theatres bulge with activity, library study carols are full, and cafeteria queues lengthen. This year, however, silence. In a matter of days, in March, thousands of faculty and students were moved to remote work locations. Buildings were put in lockdown and staff barred from their offices. An. EthicScan earlier blog, “University Authority: A Tale of Two Generations” (March 28) dealt with the dilemma of many students who remained and were unable to go home. 

How long will the lockdown continue? How many colleges will count the 2019-2020 school year as their last? Already, centuries-old didactic ways of face-to-face university educating with extensive administration seem distant and inexplicable. Why were there so many face-to-face meetings? What did all that bureaucracy achieve? Were universities improved by so many external metrics and “accountability” regimes? Or did they just get better at playing the market’s games? Which COVID-adaptation changes in their business model will become permanent?

Colleges and University Trends

Some 1.5 billion students — close to 90% of all primary, secondary and tertiary learners in the world — are no longer able to physically go to school. Learning goes on, displaced, not discontinued. In many respects, COVID-19 is drawing out the best from university and college staff, their commitment to students’ education and well-being shining through the uncertainty. Seminars zoom on to students’ smartphones, live from lecturers’ homes. WhatsApp groups set up very recently to coordinate picketing strategy become forums in which colleagues can support and advise one another. Behind the scenes – and under-acknowledged – armies of essential university and college administrative and support staff and IT workers make all of this possible.

It took just a few tumultuous weeks to completely change the entire higher education system. Campuses now sit empty as millions of students are back in households that are already fighting to pay the cost of college, where parents are now closing businesses, losing jobs, and struggling to pay even basic expenses. Those students with internet access have been thrust overnight into hastily prepared digital substitutes of the campus experience. 

Principal trends and changes in just a few weeks include:

  • Hundreds  of colleges and universities worldwide have suspended, or ended, in-person instruction and replaced it with online teaching.
  • The switch entirely from in-person to remote instruction often has taken place without training, the right engagement tools, experience or infrastructure.
  • Concerns are growing that remote education tarnishes the reputation of on-line learning. The difference between on-line learning and distance education was reviewed in the EthicScan Blog “Distance Education: A Huge COVID Bump(May 28, 2020).
  • Bans have been enacted on all non-essential travel for employees.
  • Human resources staffs have  decided who was “essential” for a continued on-campus presence and debated whether those people should be offered some form of premium pay.
  • Many universities have opted to extend COVID crisis-response measures over the summer semester and perhaps into the autumn semester.

Key Drivers of Change

The traditional college business model of a four-year degree centred on face-to-face teaching has been shaken and, some would argue, deservedly shattered. Many hallmarks that define an elite university today have been evaporating as education and community move online and students look to more appropriate, egalitarian and inexpensive edutech or information sharing.  The key drivers of change include these:

1. Increased reliance on remote education:   Teachers and lecturers are now delivering significant amounts of content over video and other applications that are still quite alien to many educators and pupils. With the online segment still comprising a small fraction of the $2.2 trillion global higher education market — less than 2% of the total— the market is ripe for disruption. Even before the pandemic, many universities were seeing declines in enrolment for campus-based programs and parallel increases in uptake of their online courses. COVID-19 may be exposing how yesterday’s disruptors can become today’s lifeguards. While traditional institutions once viewed online education as a threat, some experts say it has come to their rescue. 

2. Poor perceived value of quality university remote education: There’s a horrific awakening being delivered via Zoom of just how substandard and overpriced education is at every level. Many students struggle to stay engaged without an in-person experience. Recent private polling indicated that one in six students who’d planned to attend four-year colleges no longer plan to do so. Other surveys suggest that four-year colleges may lose as many as a fifth of students. For many students and their parents, this forced march to online learning feels like a wild west, thrown together with duct tape and bubble gum. An entire class will fall apart because a teacher can’t figure out their mic. Lectures are being “Zoom-bombed” by trolls and porn. 

3. Little application on reform of disease protocols. Shut-downs and extended lockdowns have meant many empty campuses have yet to test and implement disinfection, sanitation and infection isolation protocols. This despite the fact that government and health officials have been extending and revising rules that:

  • (a) ban large gatherings,
  • (b) prevent crowding in large lecture classes;
  • (c) restrict dormitory living protocols;
  • (d) restrict travel and parking; and
  • (e) quarantine individuals traveling across provincial and state lines.

4. Shifting in the university-perceived value equation:  The price tag of a four-year degree has increased almost eight times faster than wages. According to educators and psychologists, there’s a growing recognition that higher education — the value, the price, the product — has been substantially degraded. The gap between benefits and costs is growing. There’s the education certification and then there’s the experience or community part of college. The experience part of it is down to near zero, and the education part has been dramatically reduced. You get a degree that, over time, will be reduced in value as we realize it’s not the same to be a graduate of a liberal-arts college if you never went to campus. Today, over half the PhDs awarded are from fraudulent degree mills.

5. The funding picture is stark:  Until today, there has never been a luxury item that’s been able to garner the type of gross margins as university education. However, many families report losing income amid the coronavirus, and existing college students are pushing back on the idea of paying full price to traditional in-person colleges for remote instruction should campuses be unable to reopen in the fall. Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of their revenue. The most vulnerable of tuition-dependent institutions, particularly the ones already facing demographically driven declines in demand, will be the hardest hit by the pandemic.

Legacy Barriers and Constraints

Inertia is a factor in adaptation. These trends have been exacerbated by long-standing practices and legacy constraints that hobble reassessment and change in the business model of higher education:

1. Credentialing:  The most value-added part of a university is not the professors; it’s the admissions department which seeks to run the most exclusive admissions policy, with the highest proportion of reject applications. A more agile and egalitarian approach to certification could not only give students more flexibility than a traditional degree, but also help employers meet rapidly evolving resource needs. 

2. Presenteeism:- Trust is a key barrier. Universities rely on “presenteeism” or bums in seats as a crucial way of managing their workforce. Working remotely forces the employer to treat employees like adults – and for that to work, universities will need a “new normal” understanding that:

  • (a) who is essential within the university community may be changing;
  • (b) remote rules are different; and
  • (c) they will need to engage their disparate groups of people – educators, cleaners, contract non-tenured staff, technicians– in a renewed sense of common corporate purpose.

3. Networking:   Part of the appeal of going to college or university is in the connections and networks that you build, but the knock-on effect of being forced to use digital tools in education could be much more profound for society. The old boys academic network of who you know is being asked to confront a new meritocratic world of (how you know) what you know. High-tech “edu-tech” firms like BYJU (India), Tencent and Alibaba (both China) and ByteDance (Singapore) have rolled out one-stop, on-line platforms for teachers and students that collectively each have millions of full-time subscribers.

4. No jobs on graduation:  As this cohort graduates into a brutal job market, often in debt, the return on a college investment will be under even more scrutiny. Jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago—leveraging artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, and other technologies—are projected to be in high demand, and conventional universities are already struggling to keep their curriculum current with trends in the future of work.

5. Dependence on Chinese student supply chain:  In 2018, over 500,000 international students were contributing over $6 billion in tuition fee revenues in Canada. Many Chinese students indicate in surveys that they will opt to study closer to home. Colleges and universities in Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand will not be able to offset government austerity with the very considerable revenues from international students, as they did after the 2008 crisis.

COVID Adaptation Initiatives

Here is a collection of initiatives being reported in the literature and by education consultants.

Education Workplace Health Finance
Use online education to save students huge sums of money by ramping up the creation and use of open educational resources (OER), particularly open textbooks Reduce the misery associated with commuting to the campus and scavenging for parking Improve online outreach to prospective students and their families
View and apply widespread online learning as part of a new era of post-secondary education, not a short-term fix Learn that remote work is a viable option for far more employees on a college campus than ever imagined Re-evaluate current student recruitment and admission practices
Recognize and reward non-tenured but essential campus workers Display more compassion for co-workers who have struggled to keep family responsibilities from obviously intruding on their work Phase down or end college fairs, student receptions, orientation programs and business travel
Shift away from on-campus research to open doors for more collaborative scholarship Enhance institutional policies and programs that support families and healthy lifestyles Be more flexible in setting application deadlines and delaying term start dates
Liberate yourself by operating without the constraints of how you have always done things  such as endless meetings, white papers, complex processes, and task forces  Re-evaluate recruitment travel and attendance at academic conferences Centralize online course development and student support, subject to institutional planning and cross-campus governance
Build partnerships that enhance the quality of high tech “edu-tech” instructional platforms Enhance guidelines for remote work, both assessing its effectiveness and the staffing required (IT experts, for instance) Encourage Big Tech (Microsoft, Apple, Facebook)  to get into education for mutually beneficial reasons

Scenario Development For A Post-COVID World

The novel coronavirus pandemic has converted many college and university leaders into fans of scenario planning. It’s easy to see why. The fast-shifting landscape and massive changes to core campus operations beg for a mechanism that allows board members, presidents, top administrators and deans to prepare for vastly different futures. Many attest to scenario planning’s usefulness, whether they outline three or 15 different scenarios for the future. But at some point, leaders need to switch from planning to making decisions about which scenarios to follow. Making choices tied to one decision point doesn’t preclude future choices changing as more information comes available. In such an unsettled time, the scenarios are always changing, experts stress. The decision points are, too.

Unfettered by physical location, and the compulsion to erect ever-shinier buildings, universities suddenly find themselves free to re-imagine their place in society. Some alternative scenarios are more flexible, environmentally sustainable, cost-effective, and may be within the reach of today’s students and their parents. Others do away with ninety per cent or more of traditional four year residential campuses.

According to some thought leaders, the need for broad-based dialogue about higher education that we have largely failed to have in Canada up to now is vital. It should address critical matters such as:

  • (a) the funding formula for postsecondary education,
  • (b) recognition and reward of essential workers, whether they be contract or tenured staff;
  • (c) reassessing the reliance on foreign students’ fees;
  • (d) the alignment of the curriculum to changing labour market requirements;
  • (e ) how to position the sector for innovation and economic growth; and
  • (f) how better to engage in partnering with High Tech. Actors from across the economy and society — governments at all levels, employers, teachers and researchers, students, institutions and their representative associations, and others — should be engaged in this conversation to develop a well-coordinated plan for the future.

Here is a preliminary set of fifteen-year horizon, multi-stakeholder scenarios that are being discussed by EthicScan as one contribution to a scenario development and testing program. 

Stakeholder Scenario One Scenario Two Scenario Three
  Little Change Significant Change Pandemic proof
Learners Traditional bums in seat attendance at a four year business institution Not have to be in physical attendance.  Instant access to the top scholars in the world Emphasis on workplace training and retraining. Students get targeted, tailored content curated by artificial intelligence to both their interests and their ability level
Educators Elite credentials, access and content Massively-open online courses. Unleash education to entirely new audiences. Lifelong learning. Increase workplace teaching sabbaticals
Policy makers The top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger Increasing look to national and regional online “edu-tech” platforms Partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities
Government More funding triage Globalization Privatization
Society at large Traditional elitist “gown” education More opening for minorities, and third world students Artificial intelligence (AI) curated lifelong content
Bond lenders Dozens, if not hundreds, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business   Need for more support from altruistic socially-responsible philanthropies Big Tech (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook) companies will be centre pieces of universities of the future 
Alumni Universities that remain have student bodies composed primarily of the children of the one percent Students ‘loop’ in and out of the college experience at their own pace and on their own time New partnerships sparked between universities and High Tech providers
Deans One teaches both one and many One and many teach the many Not sit in a physical or virtual classroom watching the same lesson as 30-150 others
Administrators More need to deal with equity and wage issues More need to deal with intellectual property issues More need to deal with privacy and equity issues
Funders Public and private Public Private
Physical plant operators Physical classroom: same lesson for everyone Virtual classroom: same lesson for everyone. Build a sense of community without being in close physical proximity G5 cell phone technology delivers significant processing power and real time speech and video processing
Accreditation agencies Traditional certification standards More agile, personalized and modular learning for both children and adults Use blockchains to verify credentials and assist employers in matching jobs to qualified workers
Public health Capacity to quarantine students on campus should an outbreak occur. Adequate disinfection procedures for dorms, classrooms, and cafeterias Public health content available to everybody, including the three billion people about to come online by 2025 Learn about various kinds of risks and adaptations in five or ten minute chunks over the course of the years 
Link university-community Bastion of remote higher education. Pride self on higher disqualification admission rates. Strain on tier two colleges. A lot of walking dead ( zombie) universities Improving pupils’ technical competence in new digital ways of working will make it easier to apply in the workplace More attractive cost-effective education options for traditional and non-traditional learners
Sustainability Stress on climate. High health risk in groups Stay in place social distancing Less stress on health and climate


Will the four year traditional direct-contact university model largely become a relic? Has it already? We could have all done without the public health crisis brought about by the coronavirus, but perhaps thinking strategically about higher education’s future could be one of its positive outcomes. Long before this is all over, we will find that ways of working, learning and living have shifted to the new normal. The dark alchemy of fear and unpredictability walk the halls of corporations and universities alike, making it difficult, if not impossible, to predict with precision what remains.

Further Resources

Wired – What will COVID-19 Mean for How We Work, Educate and Travel:

Inside Higher Ed – Teaching and Learning After COVID-19:

Inside Higher Ed – Decision Points Loom for College Leaders:

EthicScan Blog – University Authority: A Tale of Two Generations:

EthicScan Blog – Distance Education: A Huge COVID Bump:

University World News – How will higher education have changed after COVID-19?

The National Post – Kyle Hiebert: In the COVID-19 world, open source textbooks are the way of the future:

The Guardian – Covid-19 is our best chance to change universities for good:

Forbes – How COVID-19 Could Shift The College Business Model: ‘It’s Hard To Go Back’: business-model/

Policy Options – Containing the Long Term Impact of COVID-19 on higher education:

World Economic Forum: How COVID-19 is driving a long-overdue revolution in education:

Academic Impact – COVID-19 and Higher Education: Learning to Unlearn to Create Education for the Future:

Forbes -Here’s A Look At The Impact Of Coronavirus (COVID-19) On Colleges And Universities In The U.S.:

NY Magazine – The Intelligencer- The Coming Disruption: Scott Galloway predicts a handful of elite cyborg universities will soon monopolize higher education:

David Nitkin