Radically Remaking the Future of Higher Education Post COVID

The Issue

Educational experts and thought leaders whose comments on the future of higher education were published in the past four months (July 1- October 15, 2020) differ from opinions expressed in earlier literature published in the period March 15 – June 30. Authors of these more recent reports, articles and forecasts have had the advantage of a fuller experience with the first wave experience upon which to offer forecasts. These more recent opinions focus more darkly on survival issues as the threat of COVID 19 wave two invariably involves more discontinuity, uncertainty, and fuller commitments to on-line and distance education.

This blog addresses three questions:

  1. Can colleges and universities hold their own in the face of near certain threats of viral transmission risk in group situations like classrooms, dining halls, and dormitories?
  2. What kind of fundamental questions are being raised about “new normal” re-thinking of the value equation of higher education and career choices?
  3. What are the various choices and consequences of “new normal”, pandemic proof, higher education?

COVID-Related Trends

COVID-19 has shattered the world of higher education. In just a few weeks, lives have been completely changed in so many ways — mobility, liberties, work, studies, research, and relationships with friends and family as well as with the wider community. In this context, colleges, universities and research institutions have had to act quickly and adapt to the most severe global health crisis in a century by taking unprecedented measures amidst lockdowns, with the challenge of keeping the whole community on track.

Higher education stakeholders include students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and the community, as well as regulators, immigration officials, suppliers of edutech goods and services, and food and cleaning services. Colleges and universities have many pressing, short-term issues to deal with right now, including:

Higher Education Legacy Issues and Implications:

COVID has exacerbated certain trends that already exist. These legacy issues include:

1. The shift from fixed to variable costs:  Higher education is already far down the path of moving faculty and other costs from fixed to variable. The decades-long slow-motion shift from tenure-track to a contingent faculty workforce is one example of this shift. Having largely abandoned the tenure model, most colleges and universities look toward adjunct and visiting instructors to keep instructional costs down in a search for financial flexibility and limiting long term payroll commitments.

2. Outsourcing:  The highest costs in any college or university budget are people. With COVID-related expenses going up and revenues constrained by a decline in residential students (residence halls, ticketed events, meals served, etc.), schools will be accelerating existing efforts to reduce staffing expenses. Layoffs will be a part of this, but a much larger shift has been a move from hiring “permanent” staff to outsourcing services previously provided in-house. Outside firms will increasingly be asked to handle not only food, parking, maintenance, and cleaning services but also student counseling, alumni affairs, development, finance, HR and technology positions previously staffed by university employees.

3. Seat time:  Influential American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s plans to establish a free pension system for post-secondary educators in 1906 led to a model that translated the contact time between an instructor and a learner into a measure of instructor workload. Even today, we measure workload through that credit-hour model, but also use it to link “seat time” to a student’s learning and academic progression.  

4. Decline in financially-important international student enrolments:  There has been a big fall in the number of international students and scholars globally in September 2020.  This will have a far-reaching impact on those countries where universities and colleges predominantly rely on charging high tuition fees from inbound international students.  Countries facing this dilemma include Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States, Japan and South Korea. The universities and colleges in these countries will have to generate funding through other channels to survive.  

5. Increasing limits on government funding per capita:  For several years now, public funding for colleges and universities has steadily declined. Per capita funding for seniors activities has trended up; for students, down. COVID wave two is merely perpetuating the practice of most governments cutting their overall higher-education funding and focusing their support on teaching and STEM research activities. Individual universities and colleges will be asked to accomplish more with less funding and make governance arrangements to become more efficient, effective, transparent, and accountable.

6. More gravitation to reputation-laden, digitally endowed, global institutions:  Increasingly, widespread provision of online teaching has made it possible for a large number of students with academically diverse backgrounds, such as under-represented students, to access on-line education from recognized, prestigious or elite institutions. The Harvards, Yales, LSEs and U of Ts (Toronto) offer education that is thought to be deeper and of higher quality. These schools pride themselves on high student-tuition fees and high-admission standards because, until now, they could.

How Is COVID Causing Rethinking?

COVID-19 can and has been encouraging some to deeply re-examine an array of long-standing practices and assumptions – for example, who controls the equipment and access that students, faculty and staff need to receive; what should be the balance and timing of face-to-face and online instruction; what are core or major credit subjects; or how to become more flexible with versions of “pass or fail” grading practices. Thought leaders have identified various ways that COVID-19 has affected tuition, enrollment and planning:

1. Interpersonal core objectives:   COVID’s transmission by close contact is causing educators and administrators to rethink much of how they operate. How can low, physical-contact technology be used more effectively? “High tech” usually requires “high touch”—interpersonal contact—but this is severely constrained by COVID. Should they maintain laboratories and small group tutorials? How much time – face-to-face or digital– do students need to complete a class or a degree?

2. Satisfying demands for safety:  A college education is not worth dying for. Universities need to spend monies sufficient to keep faculty, staff, facilities, and students healthy. Sanitation, distancing, testing, and more. Of the 101 HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities in the United States, 25 did not serve any students online education as of 2018, and another 61 had relatively few students in fully online environments.  These institutions will find it difficult to shift to remote learning, especially in a pandemic escalation scenario in which students need to be served online through to summer 2021.

3. Special needs of minority and disadvantaged students:   COVID proportionately, adversely affects minorities more including aboriginals and immigrants. Some colleges have responded by:

  • (a) subsidizing enrollments for neediest, more vulnerable applicants;
  • (b) elevating research and medical programs to recognize and better address health disparities;
  • (c) partnering  with local health departments to provide COVID-19 testing to at-risk communities;
  • (d) offering improved access, mentoring and counselling for more vulnerable population students; and
  • (e) helping to lead and staff public initiatives to address health disparities among groups like women of colour.

4. Strengthen digital teaching and communications skills:   EthicScan blog, Distance education: A huge COVID Bump(29 May 2020) chronicled the inability of a high proportion of traditional faculty to teach well on-line. Several schools have established online resources to enhance working, teaching, learning and researching. On several campuses, faculty and staff have been participating in professional upgrade and development programs for online and hybrid learning to ensure the best experience possible for students. Administrators realize the need for more frequent communication to keep their many audiences — students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and the community — informed through all the uncertainty.

5. A shift from residential education to online remote learning:  This significant transition in faculty teaching methods (which some call a move from a solo to a team sport) has various implications:

  • Having experienced remote instruction during COVID-19’s first wave, more faculty (and departments) should now be comfortable teaching online courses,
  • Students who previously shied away from registering for online courses will do so, having learned that they can successfully move through their programs,
  • Traditional faculty and staff positions will evolve to adapt to a new era of instructional flexibility and digital competency,
  • Where staff are hired in the next few years, it will be to support new online graduate programs,
  • There will be an accelerated evolution toward staff jobs that support remote students (and faculty), and away from employment to support residential students (and faculty),
  • Anyone who makes their living doing a campus-based job dependent solely on residential students should look to broaden their skill sets to include an increasingly online and remote student body.

6. Greater stratification within staff ranks: The move toward outsourcing and online education will lead to greater stratification among staff. Middle-skill campus jobs will likely be hollowed out, leaving in their place a few highly skilled staff roles and many lower-skilled jobs. Such stratification should:

  • (a) diminish the faculty/staff divide that characterizes modern higher education;
  • (b) encourage more faculty and staff to collaborate on developing and running new online programs;
  • (c) see more staff taking leadership roles in entrepreneurial program development and in managing the increased number of outside service providers,
  • (d) mean that the remaining full-time staff will spend more time interfacing with outside service providers, with particular staff skills in demand being expertise in vendor/partner research, contracting, management and evaluation.

7. Decreased faculty and staff numbers and job security:  For some faculty and most staff, higher ed employment will be less secure. Tenure track openings and replacements will be tightly controlled. Traditionally desirable but low-paying jobs at a college or a university usually came with benefits. The move in campus service roles from employees hired by the university to employees employed by outside contracting firms will diminish campus job security and compensation.

8. An affordability crisis:  The cost of higher education has been skyrocketing. Student debt has reached unacceptable levels, leading to a public outcry in America. Education has to be transformed so that higher education, which more people will need in an automated world, becomes more affordable and more accessible. At the same time, the new generation of digital technologies — such as mobile, cloud computing, machine learning, AI, AR, and VR — have matured, so immersive and personalized education can be provided online at scale at a much lower cost than that of conventional education. The current forced experiment with online instruction has significantly lowered the psychological barriers to change among parents, students, faculty, and university leaders.

Principles- Lessons for The Future:

The success of graduates depends on three ingredients — how they are taught, how they are mentored and what they experience. The shift to remote learning and social distancing has upended this recipe. Thought leaders suggest a number of renewal and enhancement “new normal” principles:

1. Create better virtual education content:  Research suggests students are comfortable reading course materials online but prefer discussions and activities to occur face-to-face. Rather than a 50-minute lecture, virtual learning occurs best over short sprints such as ten or fifteen-minute modules.  A possible,blended learning model would be one where:

  • Learning proceeds seamlessly between a physical or virtual classroom based on continuously refreshed online resource library built with open-access resources,
  • Instructors would not individually create new versions of the course each year, freeing them to mentor challenge-based learning,  
  • Experiential and lab-learning in medicine, engineering and STEM fields is now possible online. For example, in the faculty of engineering at McMaster University, they have collaborated with the educational innovation company Quanser to develop software that brings interactive and immersive lab experiences to students through virtual reality and gaming platforms,
  • First-year engineering students will learn technical skills in virtual labs and apply them as part of a team in a virtual design studio. They’ll then collaborate with team members to address unique design challenges in areas such as autonomous vehicle design.

2. Engage students to create solutions through virtual experiences:   Even before the pandemic, only a fraction of students made use of the wide range of curricular and extracurricular experiential learning opportunities offered on campuses. Now, to overcome constraints posed by distance, scheduling and convenience, these can be provided online, a prospect that bodes well for supplementing future face-to-face engagement:

  • New online programs can enhance the academic preparation of incoming students, offering them experiences and easing their social transition into virtual teams and groups, 
  • Students can participate in on-line-based community engagement and team support programs (at McMaster some teams proposed ways to increase revenue and expand ridership in a Hamilton bike-share program),
  • Students can be challenged to learn to create solutions that help mitigate the social and economic impact of the virus,
  • As students become more involved in addressing the complexity of the pandemic, they are also being trained to address other seemingly intractable challenges, such as climate change, clean water, affordable housing, mobility constraints, and ubiquitous cybersecurity,
  • A wider variety of channels for teaching, especially online and distance teaching and learning methods, will be used by universities and colleges. As a recent UNESCO report says, this could range from integrated digital learning platforms, video lessons and MOOCs to radio and TV broadcasts.

3. End the credit hour and traditional transcripts:  University curricula are created by stacking courses that typically involve three credit hours of instructor workload. With blended learning, where part of the instruction is asynchronous, the credit hour is no longer a surrogate for instructor workload or student learning. Conventional academic transcripts can be restructured to address mastery of talents, rather than reciting credit hours. Student transcripts and academic degrees should better reflect the learning, competencies and skills gained by a student, mirroring developments in professional fields where micro-credentialing has emerged as a way to reflect the kind of nimble and transferable skills that are most useful in today’s workplaces.

4. Modify policies on admissions, curriculum development and delivery:  Traditional quality assurance frameworks need to adapt to the changing student body and needs  of life-long learners as well as reflect their life learning skills potential. As students become more involved in addressing the complexity of the pandemic, they can at the same time by design be better trained to address other seemingly intractable challenges, such as climate change, clean water, affordable housing, widespread rapid transit and ubiquitous cybersecurity.

5. Broader financial support for students’ futures:  With job and financial losses, many more students can no longer afford higher education. Work opportunities like co-ops and internships that provide students with important professional competencies and skills have been scaled back by many employers. Some students face food and housing insecurity, have poor health, and cannot afford digital access and devices. University emergency student aid is limited. Solutions could involve some mix of philanthropy, alumni donations, public-private partnerships, and more government funding.

6. Renew a commitment to listening:  Thought leaders observe that the pandemic has the power to humble us all and open our eyes and ears in new ways. Administrators have been disoriented by COVID-19 and forced to listen more, empathize, and fully imagine how to serve the needs of students, employers and communities.  Faculty, supported by offices of teaching and learning, can and should find new ways to weave student concerns and social equity challenges into course design. Teachers must continue to listen carefully as they define pre-requisites, set admission standards, design curricula, and teach for the future.

7. Think about the appropriate role of High Tech:  EthicScan blog, “COVID Adaptation Scenarios: Higher Education(June 30, 2020) spoke about the transformative role, both positive and negative, that could deepen as major deep-pockets firms like Apple, Microsoft and Google more fully enter the higher education marketplace. Universities should consider promising outsourcing and collaborations with education content creators such as Outlier.org; technology platforms such as edX; and Silicon Valley edutech start-ups, especially those whose lineage is in the gaming industry with expertise in artificial and augmented reality and capabilities to create immersive experiences.

Scenario Development and Testing

Scenarios can be usefully used to posit and test important choices, questions and decisions:

  • Beyond just moving online, how should colleges and universities pandemic-proof themselves?
  • How will specific choices about COVID-19 impact the future of faculty, staff and students?
  • What kind of higher-education institutions do we want after this pandemic?
  • What kind of societies and what kind of people?
  • How will online teaching and blended learning evolve in the months and years ahead to ensure that high quality is maintained?

University presidents and Boards must start answering these questions about the medium- and long-term implications of specific alternative choices they might make. This includes teaching, learning, the student experience, infrastructure, operations, and staff. The ideal exercise of providing answers should include stakeholders like faculty, alumni, students and staff. Disciplined scenario planning can help. Scenarios can provide a strategic framework for how universities must start considering their options, experimenting with alternatives, and start proactive (rather than reactive) planning now.

Consulting firm, McKinsey, has laid out scenarios that address an 18 to 36 month horizon. They call their three broad trend extrapolations epidemiological and public-health scenarios. All three represent a degree of economic disruption few adults in Canada or the United States have ever experienced. In the first scenario (virus contained), COVID-19 is contained in the next two to three months. In the second, more pessimistic scenario (virus recurrence), physical distancing and other restrictive measures last in some regions for several more months. In the final, most extreme scenario (pandemic escalation), the public-health response fails to control the spread of the virus for an extended period of time, likely until vaccines are widely available.

This type of analysis is what futurists call “present to future” extrapolation. On the basis of these scenarios, McKinsey examined different ways in which the COVID-19 crisis could play out for US higher education. Then they suggested how institutions could respond to the unfolding conditions in both the near and medium terms. An alternative approach, “future to present” analysis posits a set of long term (10-25 year) alternative futures, then assesses which ones are probable or preferable, and then describes how higher education institutions and society might get from here to there. This approach, including a pandemic proofing alternative, is discussed in more detail in the EthicScan Knowledgebase.

Harvard University has tabled a three model future for higher education. This includes an Augmented Immersive Residential Model, a Hybrid Model, and a Fully Online Model.  One strength of the approach is that the authors specifically detail choices and issues that Boards and university presidents should consider.


Normal operations may not resume for Canadian and US higher-education institutions until the summer of 2021.University leaders should not overspend their time on fighting fires and forget about the necessary vision to realize a preferred “new normal”. Longer term vision-based thinking seems to be in short supply in the literature reviewed here. The current crisis creates opportunities to remake colleges and universities that are pandemic-proof.

Further Reading:

The Conversation – Presidents’ panel: How COVID-19 will change higher education:

Inside Higher Ed – COVID-19 and the Future of Higher Ed Staff:

Global University Network for Innovation – We are the Owners of Our Futures – Higher Education after COVID-19:

EthicScan Blog – COVID-Adaptation Scenarios: Higher Education

Harvard Business Review – A Post-Pandemic Strategy for U.S. Higher Ed:

McKinsey & Company – Coronavirus: How should US higher education plan
for an uncertain future? (PDF)


QS – The Coronavirus Crisis and the Future of Higher Education:

EthicScan Blog – Higher Education: Online vs Distance Education:

The Conversation – 5 ways university education is being reimagined in response to COVID-19:

University World News – Keeping one step ahead of COVID-19’s likely impact on HE:

EthicScan Blog – Distance Education: A Huge COVID Bump:

UNESCO – Experts of the University of the Future Network contribute with re-visions of Higher Education on the futures of education:

David Nitkin
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Mayank Kapoor
8 months ago

25 March 2020: The whole world has been turned upside down thanks to Covid-19. People were banned from leaving their homes let alone the city, and country they live in. Hundreds of businesses were forced to shut down their brick-and-mortar store and shift to digital platforms.
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Gaurav Yadav
8 months ago

The Covid-19 pandemic is dramatically restricting the opportunity of Indian students who want to study abroad, governments around the world have focused more on safety and public health with lockdown and travel restrictions. Covid-19 has undoubtedly acted as a significant disruption for the student who graduates this year and would like to study abroad and starting new academic programs.


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