18 February 2020

The cost of pandemics

If 2019 was a year of some anxiety for UK universities, 2020 does not seem to have brought any relief.  Last year, quite apart from the deteriorating financial position of many universities, there was general concern over the uncertainties of a post-Brexit Britain and the potential loss of access to the EUs huge research funds, not to mention the future of Erasmus and other valuable exchange programmes.  At least, however, we all saw this coming, even though there is yet no obvious resolution.

The new problem, the coronavirus pandemic, which surfaced in public last month, was wholly unexpected and even though some experts have been predicting something of the sort, no one could have foreseen the timing or the scale of the problem.  How long the pandemic will last is anyone’s guess, although it is clear that strict quarantine and other controls will be with us for quite a while and the impact on UK universities of a reduced student mobility from China and the Far East could be severe.  Most institutions will have planned next year’s budgets on the assumption of continuing international student fees.  If the Australian experience is anything to go by, we should be prepared for some turbulence; for example, the University of New South Wales has cancelled its February term given that 10,000 of its students, all Chinese, are stranded at home  (Times Higher Education, 10 February 2020) and similar decisions are being taken both in Australia and elsewhere around the world.

While nothing on this scale is likely to occur here, there has already been an impact on UK universities with overseas campuses in China and the Far East. More generally, who knows what the impact will be on recruitment for next year even if the current pandemic abates and controls are eventually lifted?   The 2002 SARS pandemic lasted, albeit in reduced form, until 2004 and some experts claim the coronavirus may have a wider and longer impact, even if the mortality rate, so far, has been lower.  The impact of “super-spreaders”, a notable feature of SARS, is now better understood hence the determination to impose extensive travel and other restrictions as well as quarantine. We have yet to discover the true extent of the pandemic and its likely duration, but experts remind us that pandemics can behave in wholly unpredictable ways even in advanced 21st century societies.

In the meantime, universities in the UK may well be faced with new demands to deal both with absent students and, indeed, to deal with any health emergency which develops through infection within the UK.  Providing support and reassurance will be as important as developing appropriate preventative measures.  There are already increased demands for universities to deal with a growing caseload of mental health issues, in addition to increased compliance with physical disability.  This latest pandemic adds to the expanding list of requirements and expectations for universities.

There is a further consideration, however, somewhat remote from health but intimately linked to the way universities are funded.  Given their current experience and the major disruption being caused by the pandemic, Professor Ian Jacobs, the Vice Chancellor of UNSW, has pleaded for greater public funding to reduce the reliance on external funding such as international students.  For many years, universities have prospered through their international business and in the absence of the kind of public subsidy to which Professor Jacobs refers, it is hard to develop a model which reduces this level of activity while sustaining the finances of our institutions.  Yet while there are cultural and other benefits from international mobility, over-reliance on its income is potentially dangerous.  The greater the diversity of income, the lesser the financial risk.

Of course, it is easy in hindsight to make these observations, far more difficult to shift the paradigm and no-one is suggesting that the current experience should deter us from continuing to attract overseas students and develop international links.  What the pandemic has highlighted, however, is the need to be prepared for contingencies and the unexpected.  One solution, now being deployed in Australia, is to make even greater use of on-line teaching resources as a supplement and not just an alternative to face-to-face pedagogy.  That, at least, would be some comfort for students stranded thousands of miles from their library and campus.  Developing such provision will take time and preparation as well as extensive resources, but it may be a prudent policy and sound investment for the longer-term; it is interesting to see these discussions already surfacing in the sector, as reported in the Times Higher Education on 14 February.

In the meantime, we should all hope that the pandemic abates as quickly as it spread.  Even then, one suspects 2020 won’t be a comfortable year because this is not the only problem on the horizon.

by Deian Hopkin