Image: Refugee Trauma Initiative © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy
University costs. It didn’t take long after universities closed their doors in the United States, for instance, for students to start advocating to get their money back. Twitter is awash with professors concerned about the impact that shutting universities is going to have on their institutions in the long-term. University is one of the biggest investments many people will make in their lifetime. But why do so when you could be paying a fraction of the price to take part in an online course? What about students and professors shut out of the countries where they are supposed to be studying and teaching? The ramifications are complex, and heavily intertwined with economics.
Many universities reduced or suspended fees in some way. The University of Chicago agreed to freeze tuition for the next academic year. Universities in Dubai slashed their fees and fees were suspended in 52 universities in Thailand. Chile also passed a bill on March 27 to suspend all tuition fee payments for as long as the coronavirus crisis lasts.
Stopping fees doesn’t stop interest related to student loans, though. In the United States, loans amount to a whopping $1.59 trillion. A $2.2 trillion stimulus plan, the CARES Act, will give some relief to some students, but with many exceptions. Student Loan Borrower Assistance, an NGO, estimates that around nine million students have at least one loan that doesn’t qualify for relief under the plan.
Even if tuition fees have frozen and some relief is given for student loans, it’s not guaranteed that the cost of this pandemic for universities will not roll over back onto students when term re-starts. Michigan State University, for instance, announced a 4% tuition increase for the upcoming year at the same time as it announced freezing tuition costs.
Student and academic mobility on lock-down
The blow will be particularly hard for those countries that have internationalized their higher education. Half of all international students move to five English‑speaking countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. This movement brings money, which is important not only for higher education institutions but the whole economy. In 2016, international students brought an estimated US$39.4 billion into the US economy.
Chinese students, in particular, are a large revenue stream for many universities, reportedly spending an estimated US$30 billion a year on overseas tuition. The University of Connecticut, for instance, hosted nearly 3,000 students from China last autumn and is now bracing for international enrolment to drop by up to 75% next year, equal to a loss of up to $70 million.
Australia is also a major destination for Chinese students, who contributed around $8 million to the Australian economy in 2019. Chinese students make up no fewer than one quarter of all students at the University of Sydney, for example. As early as February, travel bans prevented hundreds of thousands of Chinese from returning to universities where they were studying or were due to begin courses. This saw some institutions in Australia offering Chinese students $1,500 for travelling in from a third country to get around restrictions. These sorts of tricks might start multiplying if lock downs continue.
Travel bans and restrictions will no doubt linger once confinement periods are lifted. A study of students from Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan has estimated that around 40% of students from are changing study abroad plans since the pandemic.
Just as mobility of students will be affected by travel and economic limitations, so will the mobility of academics. The United States hosts the most transient academics, which made up 25% of new academic positions. At Miami University in Ohio, which is bracing for a 20% drop in new students, officials are drafting plans that would cut at least half, if not all, visiting assistant professorships.
Can universities survive the storm?
It is hard to know whether life will return to normal or not once this phase is over. But, just like any company that has been frozen during the lockdown, it is likely that some private higher education institutions will simply not survive this lock-down. The Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities, which represents 27 state and private universities in the country, said that suspending tuition fees would have a ‘serious and insurmountable impact, especially on regional universities’, while the rector of the Universidad del Desarrollo in Chile was a bit more direct, calling it ‘a hair-brained idea’.
The losses for some individual institutions are not insubstantial: Bucknell University in Pennsylvania says it has lost $150 million from its endowment after recent investment losses. Michigan State University has put the cost of the outbreak already at $50-60 million. The $2 trillion rescue bill in the United States includes $14 billion for higher education, but the American Council on Education, an association of college presidents, called it woefully inadequate saying that $50 billion was needed.
What the future will bring
International higher education is only a small part of the sector: just over 2% of students are mobile. But it is a part that is taking an almighty hit during the pandemic with potential knock-on effects on some host countries’ higher education systems, notably Anglophone countries and those in the Gulf, which increasingly rely on foreign students’ fees. These countries but also others, such as Japan, may spend less time trying to strategise how to recruit international students, as many have been doing recently.
Depending on where you sit, the plight of roughly 2% of the global student population with the luxury of international higher education is not something that should be a priority. Especially when the concerns are mostly about a wobble in a money market associated with education, which has been a worrying growing trend over past years. However, to this we should also remind ourselves of the vital purpose of higher education in society, and the gains in global citizenship we get from student and academic mobility. A wobble in international higher education will ripple across into the higher education systems reliant upon those funds as well, which is a worry for millions of students. Higher education is critical for countries plans for economic and social recovery; it is more than ever essential to invest in research and student collaboration that can help find the answers we need to live in such unstable and uncertain times and now would be a good time for governments and higher education institutions to make that point.