Could Covid-19 signal the death of British universities?

IF Co-founder Angus Hanton says that university students have every right to claim that they are not getting their money’s worth. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis may be placing the whole university system in jeopardy

University students are now mostly working from home and finding that much of the material they need is freely available – if not actually free.

Many of them will be wondering why they are paying £9,250 each year, plus high accommodation costs, for a degree. Could they get what they want more cheaply?

Those who have also suffered teaching disruption because lecturers went on strike may feel that, after their money is taken, they only get attention when there isn’t something else going on which is more important than them.

Who’s profiting?

Students often complain that they have to pay rent when they aren’t “at uni” in the summer holidays, and now the same applies for the whole of the summer term as well as for the Easter holidays. A case of one-for-the-price-of-two!

Because student accommodation has been contracted out to private companies, the universities can’t simply do the “decent thing” and not charge students for the second half of the year.

Many of the big student housing groups are owned by North Americans (Blackstone owns IQ student housing, Brookfield of Canada has 18,000 student rooms, and a Canadian pension scheme owns another 23,000 student rooms).

Even the British-owned rooms are mainly owned by quoted companies (Unite and UPP), who see their principal duty as being to their shareholders.

None of these companies will want to give a rent-holiday to the students. So the young people are asking, “Who is there whose principal duty is to me?”

Some also say that as they are mostly not at significant risk from the Covid-19 bug, they shouldn’t be made to suffer financially by having to pay for spaces which they can’t use.

The whole system at risk

As we have seen over the last three weeks, events can move very fast and many past certainties are under scrutiny. Might this also be the case with university education as it is now practised?

Does this whole Covid-19 episode show that what students are really being sold is two packages: learning materials and a social experience? The learning materials can be freely accessed online, and the social experience is in large part about meeting new and different people (and maybe sharing their bacteria and viruses).

Separate out the two and young people may doubt whether bundling them together makes them worth as much as the current £50,000 price tag.

But maybe going to university for three years is really not so much about getting a degree as a stamp of approval, a piece of paper whose worth in the job market will justify the expense. Until now that’s been accepted, but this may be misguided for two reasons.

First, half of graduates go into non-graduate jobs, and with a recession looming that figure may increase sharply.

Second, very rapid advances in information technology mean that employers will soon know vastly more – with help from Google, employers can in principle know almost everything about an applicant.

It may even get to the point that employers think more highly of smart applicants who they discover have chosen to learn online rather than spend £50,000 – and three years of their life – growing up in a remote city just in order to get a degree.

Covid-19 is making us all review our values and priorities and it may bring on the death of universities as we now know them. Charging young people for stuff they can get more cheaply or for free online, and charging them for rooms they can’t visit, might prompt their inquiring minds to ask themselves about value for money here – as well as about fairness between generations.

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