• COVID exposes existing tensions regarding the value of university education.
  • COVID means universities might shrink or implode.
  • Universities are cornerstones of society and must be preserved.

Reports of substantial drops in research funding and precipitous falls in international student enrolments are reaping havoc in the higher-education industry. Most universities are focussed on the base minimal lifeline: keeping enrolment intact above all else as their business model is under threat.

Doubts about the value of a higher education degree have been compounded by the COVID pandemic. One of the core reasons why students enrol in universities is to access the full “college experience” which is, primarily, social.

There is a general consensus that heavy online learning is far from satisfactory and can only go a certain distance in what attention spans can tolerate. Students yearn to enjoy each other’s company at university and in many ways, social gatherings, sororities, fraternities and clubs are the inner core of a university experience.

University life without these elements of social bonding will eventually turn young people away from the extremely expensive prospect of an experience that is already causing huge student debt problems in the United States and other countries. Why pay exorbitant amounts of money to learn online? The pandemic has created a real and serious threat to college degrees that are expensive and of increasingly questionable value, now even less attractive given social restrictions on student life.

An economic collapse of these massified education structures will lead to less global educational provision and therefore intensified elitism and further gaps between those who can afford such an education and those who cannot. There will always be an economic market for top tier universities, even if what they offer is no longer a full social, cultural experience but a far more narrow, pragmatic approach with online lectures and limited face-to-face human interactions.

However, the second and third tier face the risk of implosion: Generation Z students — forecast to earn less than their Generation X parents even before the pandemic — are now facing less employment, less capital to invest in university and possibly less return on that investment. Why go to university at all? Surely it would be better to aim for a start-up right after school?

Was all this coming anyway?

In the 1950s, when universities first started to expand worldwide in domino effect, the prospect of a solid educational pathway leading to job-earning certification was strong; this led to the massification of the higher-education industry.

Subsequent economic growth from the ‘50s to the 2000s meant an increase in the number of university students, and a more developed higher-education infrastructure. As it stands today, there are some 26,000 universities scattered across the globe, multiple ranking systems and numerous sub-industries connected to higher education.

Seen from a different perspective, universities have grown dangerously large and are, subsequently, financially fragile.

Are too many people university qualified anyway?

Since the post-WW2 GI Bill that provides educational assistance to service members, universities have become massified to the point that the value of a degree is being put into serious question anyway.

Not only did the number of PhDs and MAs sky-rocket in the last two decades; the number of first-class passes (“firsts”) increased dramatically too. This lowering of the “scarcity” of university degrees (the scarcity principle being a driver of value) has meant that some have felt that there are just too many university graduates out there.

There is also an ongoing parallel discourse about the intrinsic worth of a university degree, pondering the extent to which it prepares graduates for professional life.

Numerous industries are advertising that they do not require university-graduate job applicants because they seek skills at a tangent to academic knowledge, namely entrepreneurial attitudes and growth mindset.

And here comes the paradox: the humanistic goal as set by the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) of the highest possible level of education for the greatest number of people might end up creating a devaluing of education, as opposed to the acceleration of opportunity that was intended.

Why we must fight to keep universities thriving for the sake of society

Overall, all this has created danger beyond the four walls of universities themselves; these institutions are extremely important for society too, not only because college graduates still earn more than non-college graduates and should, therefore, go to university; but because university is a place where thinking becomes refined, and approaches far more critical, mature and sophisticated.

University is embedded in the bedrock of intellectual production, intellectual freedom and even resistance to dictatorial thought, which is precisely why dictatorships aim to control and repress these mighty institutions.

If we care about a future of free thought and the type of intellectual production that prevents authoritarian, mindless governance, then universities must be kept alive.

—Conrad Hughes

Throughout modern history, student activism has been a strong driver of social change: revolutions from Argentina to the Czech Republic have been driven by students. Martin Luther, back in the 1400s, would have struggled to drive through the Reformation without the activism of students at Wittenberg.

Universities see the powerful confluence of youthful energy, idealism and intellectual progression: the foundations of social progress.

Studies show that university students are more prone to join civic societies and social organisations, leading to a healthy community spirit at district, state and national levels. The very tissue of collective identity is made up of organised and interconnected groups and clubs.

Right now, COVID-19 is threatening the cohesiveness of human relationships: lockdowns are creating a fractured world of isolated individuals experiencing fewer opportunities to congregate than ever before. The consequences could be dramatic, exacerbating the type of atomised society that the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim warned against.

If we care about a future of free thought and the type of intellectual production that prevents authoritarian, mindless governance, then universities must be kept alive.

Likewise, if we wish to see civil society continue to be united by common values and shared experiences, we must defend the institution of the university. And we must do it at all costs: personal investment, state subsidies and private sponsorship.

If we let COVID-19 destroy universities, we will likely lose much more than we could have imagined.