Good morning and welcome back. I thought I would start the week off with a really cheery topic, like a global pandemic and how it will affect higher education.
There are lots of ways to talk about the effects of coronavirus on higher education, but broadly, they come down to two different strategies to contain the spread of the virus: travel restrictions and social distancing. Obviously, the most important travel bans concern full self-imposed quarantine zones in places like Hubei province in China and Lombardy in Italy. But for the purpose of higher education, what’s going to matter are the bans on travel imposed by third parties. For instance, Australia and New Zealand put travel bans on Chinese nationals coming into their countries very early in the crisis – as it happens, before the start of their school year. The bans have meant massive financial losses at institutions in both countries: estimates of losses in Australia range from $1 to $3 billion while in New Zealand the two institutions who have released estimates of losses seem to be expecting a hot on the order of 3% of total revenues.
This has not hit Canada yet: we were lucky enough to have our school year start before the coronavirus spread, and we do not formally have a ban on Chinese travel (though Air Canada has suspended flights, presumably because of fears for staff safety). In Australia, most of the early coverage seemed to focus on the fear that their banned Chinese students and their money would end up in Canada, and while that’s certainly a possibility, it depends on the status of quarantine zones and relative rates of infection come August. If those haven’t changed by August, I am not sure how eager Canadian immigration will be to let in tens of thousands of Chinese nationals all at once. So, don’t rule out a multi-billion dollar hit to Canadian institutions just yet.
Another area which matters to higher education is business travel. In the US, nearly all the big institutions have brought in bans on international travel in the last ten days, which at one level is ludicrous because such a ban takes no account of difference in infection rates between different countries (South America, India and Africa, for instance, remain largely virus-free); however, most are also limiting domestic travel as well (which, given that the outbreaks on the west coast are more severe that those in most countries around the world, seems sensible). I haven’t heard of any Canadian university going beyond telling staff to keep checking Global Affairs’ list of international hotspots, but I can’t imagine we are that far away from it.
Until now, the travel issues have been paramount. But in the last week or so, as the virus seems to be moving beyond the containment point in a lot of countries (most notably the United States), the social distancing measures have come to the forefront. The minor-league stuff is the postponement, cancellation or “moving on-line” of various conferences (and no, I have no idea what kinds of platforms are being used for the “online conferences”, though I suspect many of them are not very good). I suspect that there will be virtually no in-person scholastic meetings in the US this spring. Canada has been very successful (lucky?) in terms of containment so far, but we’re going to face up to this pretty quickly as well and I wouldn’t lay money on the Congress of the Humanities and Social Science being held this June, either (sorry, Western). And maybe this is an inflection point: what happens if we skip a conference season and it turns out nobody cares much? Or (less likely) what if it turns out we *can* do conferences well online? Maybe this, combined with environmental concerns, really puts the kibosh on academic conferencing permanently. If there is one really long-term effect coronavirus might have, I suspect this is it.
Financially, the bigger issue may be the inability of international students to take the exams they need to leave the country. In China, the various TOEFL and SAT exams are being cancelled; it’s not at all clear whether the all-important Gaokao exams will go ahead later this spring. So even if the travel ban is eased, there may be very large financial effects for institutions in the fall.
But in the shorter-term, there’s a more important issue, which is whether to keep universities and colleges open at all. Worldwide, there are currently almost 300 million students of all ages out of school (of which, roughly 55 million appear to be university students), mostly in East Asia and the Middle East. In North America, both the University of Washington and Stanford have decided to suspend face-to-face teaching for the duration of the semester; in some quarters this is being described as a shift to “online learning”, but with only a week left in the term (both schools are on a quarter system rather than a semester system) what this really means is that profs might assign slightly more written work and spend a little more time on email. A private university in Vancouver also closed on Friday.
The reason for these closures is sound enough – to slow the virus’ spread so that public health systems have time to react to what public health experts now expect is a disease that could eventually affect over half the population. The more the spread can be slowed, the less overwhelmed health officials will be at any one time and the lower the eventual death rate. But while the case for closing is clear, it’s not clear what the case for re-opening is going to look like. Three weeks from now, the virus is probably going to be more widespread than it is today. Three months from now, it’s possible the rate of spread will be slowing, but the case for social distancing might still be pretty strong. Once an institution closes, it could out for a really long time. It’s not outlandish to think that some North American institutions might not be in a position to re-open in September. And no one has a financial model where that doesn’t lead to serious, nasty disruptions.
Therefore, unless the North American infection rate drops rapidly in the next couple of weeks (which I think is unlikely given the absolute chaos in public health south of the border) there is going to be enormous pressure to start putting courses online. A lot of the attention is going to focus on online platforms, because that’s where the money is (believe me: the online learning and online program management companies are going to try to make enormous sums of money out of this crisis). But there isn’t enough lead time to make huge, institution-wide changes like that, so the likelihood is that what we’re going to see a lot of classes moved over to video platforms like Zoom, teachers lecturing to physically empty classrooms, and spending a lot more time on student emails.
If there’s one thing institutions should all be prioritizing, it is helping profs think through how to shift their courses online if necessary. In Canada, we’ve been lucky so far, but it would be foolish to believe this luck is going to continue indefinitely. If and when the orders are given to close schools, it will be far too late to think through these issues. Online teaching is very difficult, and thoughtful schools should be helping their faculty think through how to deliver classes online now.
Good luck to everyone. It’s going to be a hard few months.