What kind of world after Covid-19?
By Dr. Corinne Mellul
Amid the chaos and confusion caused by the exponential spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across the planet in a matter of weeks, observers and actors in higher education and the labor market have been using much of their time spent in self-isolation speculating on the kind of world that we will get back to once the coronavirus has been vanquished.
Assessments range from a return to normality with little long-term impact (they are a rarity) to a radical rearrangement of public policies and lifestyles that will make of the pandemic a ‘before-and-after’ moment in contemporary history (they are the majority). All of them, however, raise questions that no one is currently able to answer. The most that can therefore be offered at this time is a broad overview of how worldwide responses to the coronavirus pandemic may affect the business model of universities, and the structure of work.
The end of higher education as we know it?
Countless universities and colleges across the world have scrambled to transfer on line the remainder of their in-person spring semester courses in just a few days, as the vast majority of international students were rushing back home to face, in most cases, self-imposed or enforced quarantine. By many accounts, this switch has undermined the quality of learning outcomes, and perhaps of content delivery as well – with administrations broadly instructing teachers to trim down course material, reduce performance expectations and soften requirements so that virtually all students may receive passing grades. Voices are already warning that this is putting vulnerable students (those with learning and/or financial difficulties, limited internet and/or computer access, etc.) at an even greater disadvantage.
Many proponents of online education insist that this massive transfer to remote learning, undertaken within days and in the direst of circumstances, is in no way indicative of what a broader move to online education – a growing share of which has been under way for the past decade – would look like.
Be that as it may, the question is raised of whether, once the pandemic subsides, most university administrators will be willing to return to the same proportion of face-to-face teaching they offered before the crisis, given some of the benefits provided by the online model, such as a reduction in overhead costs or the potential to draw in larger enrollments by maintaining a more substantial online curriculum. As a result, after years of slow transition, mass transfer to remote learning may happen almost all at once before the opportunity for an in-depth and wide-ranging debate about the comparative merits of each model even has a chance to emerge.
The short- to medium-term financial impact of the pandemic is of course the other major question raised about the post-coronavirus fate of universities. A global recession may cause dwindling local and international enrollments, the latter compounded by lingering fears of traveling and living abroad for an extended period of time in the wake of the pandemic among students and families. A prolonged recession may also produce a significant drop in endowments from the private sector and in public subsidies to higher education. The downgrading in mid-March by Moody’s Investors Service of its outlook for the higher-education sector from “stable” to “negative” (citing “unprecedented enrollment uncertainty, risks to multiple revenue streams, and potential material erosion in balance sheets”) may be a harbinger of things to come. While the sustainability of the business model of many universities, and of residential colleges in particular, has been challenged for years from within and without the higher education community, some analysts now predict, in the short- to medium-term, the inevitable closure of those smaller institutions whose financial situation was already precarious before the spread of Covid-19, and some futurists raise the question of whether, in the longer term, universities will be altogether replaced by on-demand online education.
Will ‘remote’ be the new workplace?
A similar movement may occur in sectors of occupation that do not require the constant presence of workers on company premises. Even for businesses hitherto reluctant to rely at least partly on telecommuting, the experience of many millions of employees currently working from home under quarantine or lockdown across the world may turn out to be a watershed. Many companies may come, as soon as ‘the day after,’ to rethink their needs for expensive urban office space, while the massive gains in reduced carbon emissions and subsidies to public transportation yielded by drastic reductions in daily commutes may prompt governments and civil societies to advocate a momentous expansion of homeworking. Companies may also drastically reassess the merits of budgeting for expenses incurred by business travel, work meetings abroad and international professional events, as the globalized economy – now regarded as a major cause for the spread of the pandemic – begins to fragment.
More significantly yet, Covid-19 may challenge the growth of the gig economy, as it lays bare, amidst fears of recurring pandemics, the dire lack of social protection and health care coverage of independent service workers who have no option to work at home or to stop working even for a few days, thereby increasing the risks of spreading future viruses.