I’m a man of simple pleasures. One of the ways I keep myself amused is chuckling at financial forecasts. HS2 is going to cost £106bn. Really? Are you sure it isn’t £107bn? Or £105bn? Or something completely different? A recent study suggests that the UK university sector is going to take a £2.472bn hit next year in lost fees. Oddly, my normal instinct to giggle at the bogus precision didn’t kick in this time.
That is a lot of money, based on the assumption that new enrolments will plummet by 24% next year. Is that realistic? What should we be planning for?
In our dreams, everything returns to near-normal. Suppose the virus naturally dies down in a month or two, or some other miracle happens, and universities can reopen. There will be a scramble to match applicants to places, and lots of details to fudge, such as what to do about candidates from overseas who have not been able to take English language tests. Yet financial necessity is the mother of regulatory invention, and we will find a way.
But let’s take off the rose-saturated glasses. International students will rightly be very nervous about coming to the UK. We’ve hardly covered ourselves in glory so far, and if there are fears of a second wave, it will be understandable if few want to risk being stranded in a student room far from home – not to mention that a university is prime virus breeding ground. Universities will struggle to work out what social distancing means in practice.
One scenario being considered is that all courses will have to be offered by a mixture of in-class and online materials. Perhaps lectures are delivered by video, and students come to campus only for small group interaction. Or maybe everything must go online, at least for a time, with students remaining at home. Such contingency planning is already taking place, just in case.
Online education works better in some academic areas than others. Classroom-based subjects could perhaps be partly replicated, but lab or studio work presents greater challenges, to use the sector’s preferred euphemism.
And so, the crunch. If universities cannot open as normal, at least in part, students could very reasonably decide to defer their places until the following year, assuming things have settled down by then, and take a gap year. But not so fast …
It should not be taken for granted that universities are in a position to accept mass deferrals. Even in ordinary years it is not always possible, as highly competitive courses don’t want to tie up too many places for the subsequent cohort. Students could be told that they must reapply, and take their chances against the next year’s applicants. Nothing yet is certain, but universities will have hard, and bitterly unpopular, decisions to make.
If students do defer, they are hardly going to be looking at a cornucopia of alternative possibilities. Interrail? Volunteer overseas? Intern? Work in a bar? If these were available, then probably the universities would be up and running too. In the worst case, a gap year will be a year of lying on a bed, looking at a screen. If so, a screen containing the contents of the first year of a degree programme could seem newly attractive. Many applicants, not wanting to put their lives on hold, may prefer to get on with it.
But there is no room for complacency. Students who do opt for a virtual first year may balk at the expense of a traditional university, which will be making up online learning on the fly. They may well prefer to use an institution such as the Open University, which has decades of experience of distance learning. And why stay virtually in the UK? A global abundance of cheaper, even free, material is out there.
Where does all this leave us? As the government is just beginning to acknowledge, it’s going to a bumpy ride, both for students and universities. And quite likely something different from anything I’ve considered will emerge. One lesson from history is that higher educational analysts are not great at predicting the choices of 18-year-olds – even those they are living with. Good luck to us all.