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Can university survive Covid-19? Academics have long argued that the computer can never replace the classroom

One of the many St Andrews traditions impossible in the age of lockdown. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

One of the many St Andrews traditions impossible in the age of lockdown. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


May 20, 2020   6 mins

The coronavirus attacks individuals, but also institutions. When I walk through St Andrews, where I’ve lived for 35 years, I think sadly of the small family businesses that will never reopen. I look at the ancient university, which should now be a hive of activity with students rushing to exams or celebrating the end of them. The usual student haunts are eerily quiet. There’s no certainty that the life undergraduates once enjoyed will soon be restored.

When the coronavirus hit higher education, it encountered an institution with serious pre-existing conditions. Many universities were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. A lingering dispute over pensions had corroded morale. The over-emphasis on research, imposed largely by the government, had warped priorities, leading to a decline in teaching quality everywhere. Mounting student debt led many young people to question whether the ‘ivory tower experience’ is worth the investment.

The virus is ruthless: it exposes and punishes those weaknesses. Over the long term, some institutions might be forced to close, while others will have to radically transform the product they offer.

In the short term, universities responded impressively to the lockdown. Fortunately, the crisis struck around the term break, giving lecturers time to adjust to teaching online. I heard the usual grumbling among former colleagues but they improvised remarkably well.

The challenges were immense. Take my son, who’s currently in his third year of a drama course at the University of the Highlands and Islands. At first, it seemed impossible to do acting online from home. He, however, dutifully showed up to Zoom classes, performing movement and voice in front of his Apple Mac. An assignment in a directing module was completed with his mother in the starring role.

Higher education has changed more in four weeks than it did during the four decades I taught. When I asked friends how they’ve coped, they described nuisances familiar to almost anyone who has been working at home. One friend told about trying to conduct an online seminar while a neighbour next door was noisily building a shed. Cats walked over keyboards, dogs barked and kids made demands. Most common of all were the challenges of dealing with new technology and dodgy wifi. “One of the biggest learning curves I’ve found”, a colleague wrote, “is embracing change as a set of new perspectives rather than a series of threats.”

The problems staff have encountered are mere nuisances; those students have had to endure are more serious, and will become more so, if the crisis continues into a new academic year. The virus, far from being a great leveller, brutally exposed inequalities among students. Some have to share laptops with family members; others don’t have a reliable internet connection, or even a simple desk. One student worked from an ironing board. They nevertheless adjusted quickly and with resilience. Courses were completed without too much loss of content.

But let’s not get complacent. One reason online teaching worked better than expected is because it happened in the middle of the semester, when classes had already met face-to-face and formed personal bonds. A bunker spirit arose, fortified by an assumption that the crisis would be temporary. Creating a group dynamic with students who have never met one another and who have endured months of lockdown and uncertainty is a much greater challenge. And that’s what lies ahead.

Universities are flying blind. Among my friends, anxiety is high; there’s a repeated refrain of “the worst is yet to come”. Colleagues are frantically planning for scenarios they can’t predict. When will the lockdown be lifted? When will social distancing no longer apply? Will travel restrictions prevent the arrival of international students who contribute massively to income? Universities have responded by anticipating every contingency. They are offering teaching both in person and online, with students allowed to choose which is best for them.

This seems a sensible solution, but uncertainties proliferate. It’s not clear whether in-person and online classes can take place simultaneously. If not, the workload for lecturers will immediately double. Students opting for the online version will inevitably suffer a qualitative difference in provision that might be reflected in performance. As for those who opt for in-person teaching, will it be safe by September to pack 300 students into a lecture hall or squeeze eight of them into a small office for a tutorial? Yesterday, Cambridge announced that there will be no face-to-face lectures in the coming academic year and in person small group teaching will be conducted only where social distancing allows. Other universities will certainly follow. And what of all the other aspects of campus life – dances, sports, societies, carousing and casual sex?  There’s great risk of universities becoming hotspots in the second wave of the virus.

Now look at that scenario from the student’s perspective. Some will inevitably decide that it’s not worth spending £9,000 in fees for an experience diminished both educationally and socially. Many prospective first years will opt instead to defer their place. Some students in mid-course will decide to take a year off; some may never return. My son is seriously considering whether doing drama in the age of self-isolation is really worth the effort. He’s not sure he’ll go back. Universities have promised to be flexible when it comes to those choosing to defer, but this will inevitably lead to a massive logjam at the clearing stage in the summer of 2021.

I’m certain that universities will respond well to these uncertainties, just as they have so far done.  My former colleagues, for the most part, take pride in what they do; they don’t want the quality of higher education to suffer. Most of them will therefore spend the summer improving the online versions of their classes, by looking creatively at how best to exploit the existing technology. One thing is certain: online classes will be much better come September than they were back in April.

That, however, raises another problem, one which brings to mind turkeys voting for an early Christmas. The preferred method of teaching at universities hasn’t changed much since Plato gathered acolytes together under the Grecian sun. Seminars and tutorials teach students more than English or Philosophy or History: they foster the development of life skills like reasoning, listening, discourse and argument that are applicable to any subsequent profession.

The individual develops and matures in the hothouse of the seminar room in ways that go beyond the mere imparting of knowledge. For this reason, academics have long argued that the computer can never replace the classroom. Successful examples of distance learning, like the Open University, are still seen as second-best alternatives.

If my former colleagues work hard to make the coming academic year a success, the effect might be to undermine that cherished assumption that in-person contact is essential to learning. In other words, there’s great danger in doing the job well. Universities have always sold a life-changing experience — the degree represents a level of expertise but also a rich journey in attaining it. In the post-Covid environment of austerity, that experience might look even more like a middle-class indulgence than it already does.

The ancient universities will undoubtedly continue to do what they’ve always done and will find students willing to pay for the full ivory tower experience.  They will, however, suffer in the short term.  The University of Edinburgh announced last week that its annual income will drop by £150 million due to the Coronavirus, in particular because students from outside Europe, who pay high fees, are likely to stay away.  That will be a common problem among the elite institutions.

It is, however, the less-prestigious institutions that face a really bleak future. They can’t rely on idyllic surroundings or a distinguished reputation to attract undergraduates. These institutions depend upon their ability to pack students in to large lecture courses, taught by low paid, often adjunct, lecturers.  The competition for applicants among them was already fierce and some were in dire financial trouble.  In the post-Covid future, some might decide that survival lies in developing cheap distance-learning degrees.  Cash-strapped students might opt pragmatically for that alternative — a degree without the frills delivered online and without the expense of living on campus.

Higher education has always been sold as a great leveller — a ladder of social mobility. Intelligent youths from underprivileged backgrounds, it was thought, would develop their full potential through the experience of going away to university. That ideal was already undermined by the introduction of fees in 1998 and their crippling increase in 2010. It would be weakened further if online courses proliferate.

Higher education would be divided into two unequal sectors which would reflect the characteristics of the cohort they attract. The ancient universities would continue to offer the in-person tutorial experience, with the important personal and social development that goes with it. The other sector would offer online degrees without frills — an option attractive to those whose low income necessitates a utilitarian approach to education. The latter would learn a subject, but would miss out on the personal growth. Out would go that ideal of levelling; instead of erasing class differences, universities would magnify them.


Gerard DeGroot recently retired from the School of History at St Andrews. He has written books on various aspects of twentieth century history, including moon landings and the nuclear bomb.


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Auberon Linx
Auberon Linx
4 years ago

It is highly likely that higher education will change permanently after the pandemic ends, along the lines described by the article – a “boutique” experience in prestigious institutions for the few, online courses for the many. That does not necessarily mean that students opting for the latter would miss out on personal growth – university experience is character forming, but there is no reason to believe that other environments experienced at young age are not.

University today presumes that one leaves family and early friends behind, often for good. There is a thrill in the ability to remake onself that comes with this, but also a loss of connection that may stay for life. If this is not the only option for development, that is a change for the better.

The way university blocks students’ time and temporarily shelters them from life’s demands is its biggest advantage. But it comes with restrictions of its own – students are forced to hang around lecture halls for several years, with dire consequences for their ability to live lives of respectability if they don’t. I am sure other possibilities will open up, which will be welcomed by those with stronger ties to their local communities, as well as those who do not fit well the relative conformity of student lives. The changes to higher education might be beneficial overall. Rather than something being lost, new ways of growing up and discovering the world may appear.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

I wonder if we’ll see way more part-time courses being offered (or canny employers screwing down the Uni’s to give massive discounts if employers send employees on a PT basis).

David Stanley
David Stanley
4 years ago

In my experience, university wasn’t close to being a great leveler. It more resembled a middle class holiday camp. I had a great time there and got the opportunity to mix with people from exactly the same socioeconomic background as myself. There were also very few arguments or debates as everything was taught from a left wing perspective and dissent was often frowned upon.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

Ever since the perfectly lovely, but utterly useless John Major, PM, turned the Polys into Universities at the stroke of a pen, it was obvious to many that a national catastrophe would unfold.
What did surprise many contemporaries, was this happened under a Conservative, rather than a Blairite/Labour government.
Dilution of academic standards on such a gargantuan scale, was hubris in the extreme!
Fortunately Nemesis is at hand, and there will be much ‘weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth’ before this is resolved.
However before we get hopelessly lost in a miasma of grief it is worth recalling how little, if anything Oxbridge and others contributed to the greatest event in human history, namely the Industrial Revolution.
The ‘revolutionaries’, all self made men, some barely literate, irreversibly changed the course of human history, through sheer, practical genius, of a kind not seen before.
Thomas Newcommen’s Beam Engine, operating at the Wheal Vor Mine, Cornwall from at least 1710 owed nothing to Oxbridge, yet in a little over a century, the world was well on its way to the greatest transformation in History.
Consummatum est!

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

However, many of the medical and scientific discoveries that have improved our living standards in the last century were made by university-based researchers. A vaccine against this damn virus may be the next one!

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago

Yep…Uni. types doin’ ‘science’…but using products made in the real world….the finest steel for scalpels and needles, the best optics….

…science without Engineering is mere speculation…

…as mathematicians wibbled about whether Engima could be cracked quickly, let alone Tunny…..Engineers built the machines that made it possible to crack ’em faster and more accurately than ever before…the ‘boffins’ chatted and theorised….Tommy Flowers and his ilk made sure the machines were made….

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  Allan Dawson

Engineering is also a common degree course…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

Yes, but none of those last century medical and scientific discoveries would have been remotely possible, without the previous explosion of the correctly named Industrial Revolution in the18th and 19th centuries.
Had it not been for the astonishing work of Newcommen, Watt, Bolton, Brindley and Abraham Darby to name but a few, from that kaleidoscope of talent,
Oxbridge would have remained an ossified Priest Factory, churning out Anglican vicars on industrial scale, if you will forgive the pun?
If fact not only Oxbridge, but even such august institutions as Eton College did their very best to thwart the march of progress.
Fortunately for the world, they failed abjectly.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Well, I think the jury’s still out. If the world perishes through nuclear war, environmental degradation or runaway climate change, we may end up regretting that we pursued the dynamic industrial path in preference to a few placid millennia of regular evensong and occasional Grand Tours.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

Yes, there is a lot to be said for that!
Xenophon in the Oeconomicus describes science as “the arts that we call vulgar ” and then goes on to explain that scientific (labour saving) advances, produce, idle, feckless men etc.
Somewhat later Suetonius tells us that when Vespasian was presented with a (mechanical ) device for transporting columns he rewarded the inventor handsomely, but never used the device/machine, saying that if he did use it “how would he employ the/his poor?”
Perhaps these fragments explain why the Pax Roman lasted so long and generally benignly.
However after ‘the re-boot’ of the so called Renaissance it was a very different matter.
Sic Gloria transit Mundi.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

The mighty Iron Masters as well… 🙂

Jane Harry
Jane Harry
4 years ago

This ‘rite of passage’ for western youth has long become a racket. it needs to go. Science and technology will go on under some other system, and be better for it.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago

Blair initiated the downfall of the universities with his reckless expansion and the universities themselves are rapidly finishing the job with their bums on seats avarice.
University of the Highlands and Islands? Well, I suppose so, just about. University of Huddersfield? Give me a break.
We need a radical reduction in the number of universities, together with a marked improvement in the quality of those who remain. A marked reduction in their dependence on overseas students, particularly from China, should be part of the plan.
This must be counterbalanced with a return of the polytechnics and technical colleges, providing high quality vocational training.
And while we’re at it, the public sector needs to reverse its obsession with making vocational occupations into graduate only jobs – nursing, social work, policing, even teaching at some levels.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

Obviously secondary-school teachers should have a degree in the subject that they teach. Basic minimum requirement, surely.

cft-rlucas
cft-rlucas
4 years ago

This article demonstrates all the reasons why universities will now have to get into the 21st Century, where Degree Apprenticeships will be the norm to ensure employability skills and knowledge of a workplace provide future employees with the right work attitude and training in order to kick start an economy fit for the future.
These qualifications will prevent that long wait after graduation to find a job, avoid high debts of studying something not always of interest until it is too late to change.
The young, graduates as well as Year 12s and/or 13s might also enter into some voluntary work or low paid work that would help many aspiring to politics and economics, just how difficult it is to exist on even the living wage, let alone afford rents or mortgages.
It could become like a reflection, looking back 60 or 70 years when more working class families studied in the evenings and in some cases, women who had to go out to work to support their family even managed to do part time degrees when they got married and had children – even working in the evenings when the husband came home.
I do believe it will be the making of many of the young to have to make do a bit and do a job to obtain an income – if we all require fresh food in the future, the agricultural sectors are aleady crying out for workers and what better gap year could there be than working in the open air, with friends and having fun, not much pay but no debt to worry about.
Universities, like schools and colleges will have to embrace the age of on-line distance learning – not much different doing a zoom webinar to a 300 lecture theatre really. And what independent learners these graduates will be and have time to work in their community as many have done already.
A new world is in the making, Let’s hope that those youngsters, many of whom have such hopes for a better future for everyone, when talking to them at interviews, and eventually ‘govern’ have more experience, project and logisitics management, together with a caring politics that puts people before profit and ensure that new economic models involve putting back as much as is taken out!

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  cft-rlucas

Proper Degree Apprenticeships are rather than rocking horse s78t.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  cft-rlucas

“Universities, like schools and colleges will have to embrace the age of on-line distance learning.” Universities may have do this temporarily, but hopefully they’ll be a backlash when it is realised how inferior the experience of online learning is to the experience of face-to-face classroom interaction. Hopefully once the virus is sorted we might begin to think of turning universities and schools into internet-free zones; people should switch off their phones when they arrive on campus as they would when they enter a theatre. After all, the thing that is really lacking in the modern world is the ability to concentrate uninterruptedly on one thing, and that’s what our universities need to teach.

David Gould
David Gould
4 years ago

Sis in law did open university for several years whilst working , every now & then there’d be a long week end away & a summer meet up session for things that could not be done on the TV & by paper.

She passed the business management with honours , eventually became the senior manager of a large group of hospital services organisation .. yet she started out as the illegitimate child of a factory worker , was adopted , left school with no qualifications went on to work as a gal serving sandwiches & tea to the troops in Germany. It was in later life at 40 yrs old she became a dish washer at one of the hospital kitchens & decided to return to study to get herself & my disabled brother out the predicament they found themselves in ..

Running away to a university for most is just an extension of school but with more alcohol & drugs added to the mix so my nephew & niece say .. They took computer sciences , got distinctions .Both became self employed and were able to retire as a result of hard work & money at the age of 50 . Both said that they did most of the work on their own & rarely ever saw their tutors.
The first university that puts decent on line learning up for their students and takes the form of the OU is going to be a real winner , the old holiday camp crap is in the past as it is expensive & wasteful of peoples lives

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

If C-19 destroys our rampant and repugnant universities at least some good will have come of it.

Jeff H
Jeff H
4 years ago

The article focuses on the Humanities where at least online teaching provides a viable but very poor alternative and only in the short term. Not that anyone is going to pay the present level of fees for such an impoverished experience.

Most sciences will be imposible online as laboratories, workshops, field trips etcc are essential. Likewise Fine Art and Applied Arts (Design, Fashion etc..), Nursing, Medicine, Education arent possible without access to the ‘real world’ and hands on experience. Drama without a studio and physical presence with other students is beyond ridiculous.

If I were about to be entering Higher Education it would be a no brainer to defer for at least a year. Maybe in that time I would realise I dont need a degree at all.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  Jeff H

Or only go to a top tier Uni. to do a course that has real value in the jobs market…

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  Allan Dawson

First step in making universities useful preparation for entering the world of work has to be the abolition of tuition fees. Why? Because the existence of fees encourages students to see themselves as “customers” paying for a degree. Thus, lecturers are pressured into compromising standards and awarding better marks than students actually deserve – after all, if they get bad marks, they will complain they haven’t got what they paid for.

As soon as tuition fees are abolished, and especially if a small maintenance grant is provided, then the relationship between teacher and student will become much more like that between employer and employee. The lecturer, like an employer, will set the student tasks which the student, like an employee, will be obliged to fulfill. Completing a degree, like holding down a job, will depend on completing those tasks satisfactorily. Diligence and hard work will be rewarded; lazy or slapdash work will be penalised.

(In fairness to students, I should say that many of them don’t buy in to the debased consumerist model of higher education in the first place, and reject the utilitarian notion that the value of a degree is defined by its mere market value. When I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, virtually all students thought they were doing something that was worthwhile for its own sake. It’s a great relief that some of them still do).

David Gould
David Gould
4 years ago
Reply to  Jeff H

I disagree when you say lab work , workshops field trips would not be possible if it was on line uni , have you not hear of the OU ?
Learn the basics from home whilst you work and earn money , socialise & grow up in the real world not an extension of childcare . Do it in three or four weekly stints then b****r off and do the practical’s at the uni in weekly blocks like all manner of apprentices doing City & Guilds , HNC & HND used to do .

Even the medical & scientific professions could do it, it just take the will & mind set to get there .
Another benefit should prove to be less suicides & snowflakes who cant live away from home .. at least they might have the strength of a loving family around them as they grow up rather than endless empty drunken fumbles in uni accommodation with other immature kids .

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

This post seems to have got lost in another version of this page (the one reached when you click on the feed from your Email account, which has a different address). I’m thus copying it over. UnHerd really needs to fix this bug.

Despite sky-high tuition fees, universities were already in financial trouble before the virus hit. The obvious reason is that enormous amounts of money have been wasted on paying a caste of overpaid, over-numerous managers, and on building snazzy new buildings which look great but which are often not fit for academic purpose. Money is also wasted on unhelpful bureaucratic initiatives like the REF and the TEF, which demand that scholars and teachers jump through statistical hoops rather than doing their jobs.

While Conservative and Blairite administrations preached the virtues of deregulation in the private sector, they have imposed a Stalinist level of centralised control over higher education institutions that were once independent and self-governing. Our university system, when it was run properly by the academics who taught and researched in it, was the finest in the world. How have the mighty fallen!

The colleague cited above comments that “One of the biggest learning curves I’ve found is embracing change as a set of new perspectives rather than a series of threats.” But we must ask why academics have come to feel that change equates to threat in the first place. It is surely because almost every change that they have endured in recent years has been a change for the worse.

Fortunately there is a straightforward solution. It is to change things, as far as possible, back to the way they were.

ralph bell
ralph bell
4 years ago

Once students don’t attend an institution in person, then the identity will be diminished and drawing power. Online courses will dramatically change the University experience, some for the better such as more applied apprenticeship courses. I don’t think you can just turn back the clock after the virus threat retreats.
What I don’t understand is that when the risk of corona virus(From the evidence of cases) to students in general is tiny and insignificant as it is to the majority of staff. Why don’t those with high-end risk be provided with alternatives but the vast majority should be back in college attending lectures tutorials and getting drunk…What has happened to peoples sense of perspective about making everyday risk decisions.

bulleid1002
bulleid1002
4 years ago

Too many frivolous mickey mouse courses…

Diarmuid Ó SĂ©
Diarmuid Ó SĂ©
4 years ago

This is a very good article. I am still teaching third level, and I recognize the points he makes. We were really lucky that this struck in March. Switching to online teaching for the last few weeks of term was difficult, but if untrained and inexperienced staff of all ages had had to adapt to that in January it would have been a lot worse, and perhaps a fiasco. I am also pleased to see more and more comments appearing on the foolishness of fetishising research. Another problem is the preoccupation of so many senior staff with mostly futile meetings. Some years back an Irish minister for education said that he wanted to see those senior academics who teach very little getting back to the classroom, but he got nowhere on that. A particular blow for students has been the widespread (and maybe general) suspension of exchange programmes such as Erasmus. If recurrences of this virus lead to long-term online teaching the damage to universities and to students will be difficult to repair. Some so-called academic leaders will be only too pleased to push the Open University model for everyone. I mean no disrespect to the very fine OU and its achievements, but a non-attendance model will lose too much of what most students and academics regard as essential.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
4 years ago

The upside is that in the long term we might go back to being more thoughtful about how we educate and train school leavers. To me it’s doubtful that sending forty something percent on a three-year university course is the right answer. However, with the likelihood of a VERY weak jobs market for a year or two the transition may be difficult to pull off…

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago

Quite brutally…should ‘Drama’ even be a degree subject?