What impact has the coronavirus had on higher education?

Students affected by virus

What impact has the coronavirus had on higher education?

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As the spread of the coronavirus continues across the world, many questions remain unanswered, not least what is going to happen to those thousands of students whose universities have also been affected by the pandemic. Schools, offices, museums, restaurants and bars are being closed across the world, and curfews are in place in particularly affected countries. Similarly, universities have begun shutting up shop, not willing to risk large swathes of students being affected by the virus. So what does this mean for students who are unable to study, and what are some of the potential workarounds?

the impact of the coronavirus on higher education

Universities close their doors

Across many countries, universities and importantly their libraries have been shut down. In Berlin, for example, all Freie Universität libraries shut down officially on the 16/03/20 for an indeterminate period, some having already closed during the week before. In Italy, universities have already been closed for some time, as have major universities in the USA. It is surely only a matter of time before this happens broadly across most of the world, assuming the virus isn’t brought under control soon.

Currently, many universities are on study break, meaning a few weeks during which there are no seminars, lectures or tutorials, allowing students to write their essays or do exams. With libraries shut, leaving students unable to find the research materials they need, deadlines for essays and exams will have to be pushed back to allow time for these students to still do their research.

Moreover, with universities closed, many students who need to speak to their professors and tutors for help with their essays won’t be able to, at least, not in person! This causes problems for students who need to talk through their ideas with their supervisors, like, for example, those writing Bachelor’s or Master’s theses. With nobody to turn to for advice, many will cease to write until they are able to talk to the people advising them on their chosen topic.

The economics of the virus

There is an economic impact of the coronavirus on institutions, too. At the beginning of February when Australia began closing its borders, many Chinese students had gone back to their home country for the semester break, which over this period lasts around three months. Due to the travel ban that was put in place, many of these students were unable to return to continue their studies. The financial costs of this show just how reliant many universities are on international students willing to pay vast sums of money for their education: schools across Australia were expected to accrue costs of up to A$8 billion due to tuition fee refunds, accommodation costs and the reorganisation of teaching calendars. These economic costs will also affect universities in other countries, particularly those which have mandatory tuition fees.

Furthermore, IELTS and TOEFL, two of the main providers of English proficiency tests, have also stopped working in China, which will drastically hinder the ability of newer students who need to show they can speak the appropriate level of English in order to study in that language. This will mean subsequent intakes of students especially from China but also all over the world will be lower as fewer students are able to provide the certificates they need.

Abroad semesters and university meals

Another problem has been students studying outside of their home university’s country. Many partake in a semester abroad to widen their cultural and philological understanding, and plenty go to China and Italy to do this, two of the regions hit hardest by the virus. In both instances, students were forced to fly back or, when the quarantine in Italy began, left of their own accord despite the travel restrictions. Aside from the fact that this may mean the virus spreads further outside of those respective countries, it also spells the end of a semester abroad which likely had not yet ended, an upsetting revelation for those who enjoy the excitement of studying somewhere else.

And what of those students who rely on meal programs at university, something particularly common in the US? These students, who pay not only for their accommodation but also for their food through the university, may no longer be able to afford food as everything is normally provided at discount rates by their school.

What are the solutions?

The main way this crisis of higher education can be averted is by universities switching to online learning. Universities are already starting to do that, urging professors and seminar leaders to make sure all learning materials are online and easily accessible to all students. Obviously communication must also move to email or, if tutors allow, apps like WhatsApp which allow group functions, meaning everyone can be simultaneously notified of updates instantly. Seminars and lectures can potentially be recorded and distributed among students, and if supervisors are needed to help with term papers, that could be organised through things like Skype or even a simple telephone call.

Check out online courses on INOMICS

At the same time, students and university staff alike need to appreciate that in this confusing, quarantined time, nothing is going to run as normal. Professors and lecturers need to offer their students adequate attention over email to make sure their needs are met, as well as being lenient with deadlines for essays which it may now not be possible to write. On the other side, students need to be patient with supervisors and leaders who may have hundreds of students to respond to, and who may be sick themselves but still trying to work. With a little understanding and a little effort and investment into digital technologies, universities and students will be able to offer all they can to keep higher education alive during this difficult time, and ensure students get the most out of their education which, in many cases, they pay a lot of money to have.

As for the other more minor problems, those who have had their abroad semesters cut short are unfortunately unlikely to receive any help from universities, which have enough on their plate right now. Those meal programs which no longer run may, however, be replaced by ‘grab and go’ meal programs offered by universities, though as buildings shut across Europe and the United States, it remains to be seen whether these programs will be put into place, and if they are, for how long they will run. As for admissions and the tests needed, there is no chance of getting hundreds of students into a hall to finish their exams: the only solution is that students wait until the virus outbreak has been contained (or a vaccine has be found!) and the next university intake begins, something that will affect both their lives and the economic interests of universities. Hopefully universities offer at the very least online practice tests and exercises so students can stay abreast of what they can expect when exam halls do open again. Until then, it looks like many students will be cut off from any physical contact to their university.

In the meantime, it’s an opportunity for students to use their free time and make plans for catching up on their studies in the summer, for example during summer courses. Check out here the list of our recommendations for summer schools in the summer 2020.