Ethical Risk: Are Universities Worth It? The Declining Value of a University Degree

The Issue

The value proposition for higher education is undergoing serious rethinking during COVID-19, as colleges and universities seek to maintain high tuition costs while transitioning to remote education, but without offering the many traditional face-to-face benefits of college life. More and more, pointed questions are being raised about the viability of hundreds of smaller, less well-endowed university campuses, amidst concerns such as hollowing out of faculty and staff, questions about the worth of distance education compared to face-to-face education, the diminishing value of traditional bums in seats transcripts, and the prospect of digital education being taken over by Big Tech, edu-tech companies and larger, more prestigious, internationally-ranked universities.

This blog addresses three questions:

  1. How severe are the current concerns about the declining value of a university degree?
  2. Do poor academic performance results from on-line learning compound the problems of survival for many colleges and universities?
  3. Will Big Tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft as well as “massive open-online courses” (MOOCs) dominate the new normal university sector in ten years’ time?

Question One: The Value of a University Degree:

Universities and colleges have a long history of operating in environments that are unstable, disruptive and unpredictable.

They’ve endured political upheavals, financial crises, internal dissent, and disruptive trends such as digital transformation and globalization. Prior to COVID, they’ve struggled  to respond to demands for:

  • (a) greater access,
  • (b) more relevant life-long learning, and
  • (c) multiple competing demands from students, society, the state, industry and local communities.

According to EthicScan blogs COVID Adaptation Scenarios in Higher Education (June30) and Radically Remaking the Future of Higher Education Post COVID (November 9) that review this COVID adaptation international forecasting literature every ten weeks, experts believe the coalescing of old ills and new COVID-19 transmission risks threaten the very foundation of the university system. Several leaders in and outside academe call for universities to reform, and seize the moment to be innovative, proactive and better able to adapt for (and contribute to) a post-COVID-19 world.

COVID-19 has had many positive and negative implications for higher education. Many of these negative challenges are growing rather than diminishing, are are projected to bear bitter fruit after the pandemic has been contained or eliminated.Thought leaders cite these negative and positive implications:

COVID Negative Implications For Higher Education COVID Positive Implications For Higher Education
The disruption of academic programmes and research A positive inflection point, allowing universities time and willingness to re-imagine new teaching and learning possibilities
Greater financial challenges on top of declining real public funding for over a decade An opportunity to re-examine the way they do research and pursue collaborations
The need to invest in the health protection and well-being of staff and students A chance to reduce the rigid bureaucracies that characterize the system
Devastating revenue losses that reflect half-full residences, shuttered food services, and empty parking lots. A chance to embrace enhanced, online conferences and teaching technology.
Fewer international, high-tuition-paying, students The need to rethink standards and how to support teachers

It’s hard to redesign an education system in a year. Despite taking swift measures such as hiring freezes and deferring already deferred maintenance, our country’s post-secondary schools have been struggling mightily since the pandemic hit. Many schools are pouring money into emergency measures with no sense of when or even whether a traditional post-secondary experience will resume.

Universities are in for a reckoning because so many major stakeholders have strong dissatisfactions:

  • Graduates face a constrained labour market due to the poorly performing economy that has been aggravated by the pandemic.
  • International students and their families resist paying high “campus as regular” fees for less valued on-line education. These students pay four or five times more than their Canadian counterparts, and sometimes much more than that—fees that are comparable, in some cases, to U.S. schools.
  • Many faculty and graduate staff complain that positions are being hollowed out, with no new hiring and/or increased sub-contracting out of non-academic jobs.
  • Certain educational and business leaders (like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk) not only raise questions about the decision to pursue a costly, time-consuming college degree being a bad individual career choice, but also have committed money to learning model alternatives.
  • Young people who are aware of the burden of the debts involved in undertaking an undergraduate, professional course or graduate degree will exact on their future lives.
  • Politicians are less likely to finance higher education because the needs and demographics of elderly taxpaying voters dominate those of post-secondary student age.
  • Alumni, pharmaceutical companies, and technology entrepreneurs who question the quality of knowledge and life-skills training of recent graduates.
  • Workplaces and recruiters downgrade their estimation of higher education as they witness growth in grade inflation, diploma mill defaults, and falsified admission procedures.

Academe’s insistence on ever higher grade average admission criteria contributes to declining support for a number of university liberal arts departments compared to the STEM disciplines. For years now, admissions department heads felt that they could and should raise grade average admission requirements and tuition fees, publicly expressing satisfaction that this reflected their institution’s reputation or worth in the marketplace.  Increasingly, no longer. The “bums in seats” business income model compounded by admissions elitism and grade inflation has been dealt a devastating blow by COVID. 

Few observers see a reversal in declining public support for higher education/youth versus health care/seniors spending. “Public funding” has become “public assistance”. Higher-education costs have increased at twice the rate of inflation, and student debt now tops $1.3 trillion. The hollowing out and contracting out of faculty and support staff portend serious, long-standing challenges in everything from transcripts to admission standards, and from evaluations to teaching methods.

Question Two: Online or Distance Learning

Teachers teach as they were taught, and parents of students expect what they received as students. There is growing sentiment on social media and among generation Y’s that degrees earned during COVID-19 represent a second grade or second class degree. Much of this reputation decline is tied to universities’ current adoption of distance education which, for reasons of fear of close contact infection, had been as rapidly introduced and applied as it has been criticized.

Last spring, the pivot to online learning meant universities needed to quickly invest in extra IT infrastructure and video call licences. Over the summer, many schools made further investments in online learning, IT support, software to improve online learning and other expenses that support remote instruction. While there is much talk from some leaders about the benefits of finding the right blend of on-line and face-to-face education, there are others who observe that learning remotely or from home may be an unlikely and unsuitable training ground for many in a post-pandemic world.

The extensive and abrupt migration by universities to emergency distance learning has sharpened existing socio-economic fault lines within higher education and in society at large. Inequities vary by an institution’s resources, available internet access, e-learning instructor training, and students’ socio-economic circumstances, all of which affect students’ ability to access technology in order to experience the benefits of online education. A large number of universities struggle with this transition because of:

  • (a) inadequate information technology infrastructure,
  • (b) limited educator expertise in online teaching and learning methods, and
  • (c) their inability to provide computers, internet access, exchange of documents, and data to many students.

EthicScan blogs Distance Eeducation: A Huge COVID-Bump (May 29)  and Screen Time and Home Schooling (April 29) discuss whether and why on-line learning compounds the problems of learning at many colleges and public schools. Grade performance researchers in North America and Asia say that many students in some fields are getting a subpar product in online education. Students in 2020 who thought they were paying to be able to sit in a classroom and listen to the professors face-to-face, to do labs that are not online [simulations], and to be a part of discussion groups, an well as to live at and enjoy campus life have been rudely awakened. Many of these students and their parents do not believe that students should be paying full tuition for full college experience for what non-campus-based, remote education benefits they are getting.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the pandemic has highlighted what some see as the high stakes need for hybrid or blended teaching methods and education strategy that are aligned with a specific country’s reality. The idea isn’t to pursue online education as an alternative to contact higher education. Nor is online education an antidote to the sector’s resource challenges. Rather, it’s to:

  • (a) Optimize multiple learning delivery modes;
  • (b) Embrace creativity and innovation in teaching and learning;
  • (c) Blend teaching and learning methods to improve learning outcomes;
  • (d) Improve graduate readiness for an evolving and unpredictable employment landscape; and
  • (e) Take advantage of the opportunity for millions of people all over the world to learn and teach to huge audiences at close to zero marginal cost.  

Question Three: Scenario Development and Testing

Our higher education system is ripe for transformation. It shows signs that emerging key actors are poised to enter, transform and dominate colleges and universities:

  • Big Tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft whom some observers believe will be forced by global investment markets to enter and dominate the university sector in ten years’ time.
  • “Massive open online courses” (MOOCs) that will increasingly attract distanced learners by offering international ready access to quality education at prestige ranked universities, thus stratifying elite winner campuses from more numerous other, weaker and vulnerable losers.
  • Edu-tech companies, notably in Asia, that offer high quality, more affordable digital education, especially in more rapidly-developing economies.

In combination, the three “disruptors” have the potential to revolutionize the delivery of higher education and research, encourage  elimination of bureaucracies, and offer advanced learning to more disadvantaged and underserved students, as well as build on cost-effective programs that could extend university to more classes of people denied learning opportunity due to this pandemic or any following natural disaster.

Futuristic education trends, having been accelerated by the pandemic, are already appearing in scenario exercises. They include:

  • (a) Online teaching and learning;
  • (b) The need for up-skilling;
  • (c) The growing potential for vaccine and drug-development research on campuses;
  • (d) Capitalizing on remote working from home; and
  • (e) The adoption of 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

Research teams at universities like Harvard and Wharton are publishing interesting monographs on tools like alternative scenario development and testing for possible and preferred alternative futures. These are dedicated attempts to rethink what the future could or would look like, and then take steps towards this. Components of this desirable future could include:

  • (a) Education for 60-80 year olds who wish to continue to study in their advancing years;
  • (b) Devoting more attention to technical trades training and apprenticeships; and
  • (c) Rethinking how best to address the need to repair and maintain the university’s crumbling physical infrastructure.

Future-to-present scenario planning (as distinct from trend extrapolation) provides a framework for combating natural human biases and challenging entrenched mindsets of leaders and organizations amid uncertainty and crisis situations. While engaging in scenarios can be a humbling process, it can help to mitigate risks of over-weighting the present, build plans based on a predictable future, and avoid being excessively overconfident in forecasts. Scenarios are more than just engaging stories. They are plausible assumption-based, “what ifs” that (a) highlight decision-making steps to get from the future to the present, (b) challenge prevailing beliefs, and (c) instill agility, adaptability, and resilience to plan for (and try to realize or avoid) elements of a world that is much more uncertain than we tend to acknowledge.

While the immediate impacts of COVID-19 are horrendous, some leaders believe that the long-term outlook for universities is still hopeful as long its leaders:

  • (a) Take radical action to reassess and realign their administrative structures;
  • (b) Re-examine the types of courses they offer and what they charge for them;
  • (c) Blend online and traditional teaching; and
  • (d) Focus more on local communities rather than relying on overseas students. If certain centers of the Higher Education sector can show willingness to reform, that will make it easier for the government and other stakeholders to play their part.


The pandemic piled on top of an already troubled and unsustainable education situation raises an almost unthinkable question: will some or many of Canada’s universities not survive COVID-19? Many thinkers raise questions about whether or not the current university system is appropriately led, worth the price of tuition, and allocates existing resources in ways to engender excellence, “new normal” affordability, and equitable access. Clearly, the pandemic has challenged the suitability, viability and sustainability of existing university operating models, teaching practices and systems. If universities and colleges are to survive and thrive after the pandemic, they must reassess and adapt both their legacy operational strategies and their “new normal” pandemic planning.

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Further EthicScan Resources

EthicScan Blog – Radically Remaking the Future of Higher Education:      ###

EthicScan Blog – COVID Adaptation Scenarios in Higher Education:      ###

EthicScan Blog -Online vs Distance Education:   ###

EthicScan Blog – Distance Education – A Huge COVID Bump:   ###

EthicScan Blog – Screen Time and Home Schooling:    ###

EthicScan Knowledgebase – Higher Education:     ###

articles, scenarios and comments on Knowledgebase

Further Readings

The Conversation – Post COVID-19: opportunity for universities to have a rethink:

NewStatesman – How universities can embrace the post-Covid future:

University of Witwatersrand- Post Covid-19: What would universities look like?

The Toronto Star – Without investment, universities and colleges heading for a crisis:

OECD – Six Scenarios for Universities:

Sage Journals – Building Futures Scenarios for Universities and Higher Education: an international approach:

Deloitte – Higher education remade byCOVID-19:

David Nitkin
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