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.