In countries like Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Denmark and Finland, students either attend college for free or their tuition is heavily subsidized. Depending on the severity and frequency of virus outbreaks and their economic impact, governments may reduce their contribution, putting a burden on students for the first time. After a long history of free public university that ended in 1998, the UK currently charges students up to £9,250 (US$11,550) a year for an undergraduate degree. With Britain among the worst-hit advanced economies, it is entirely possible that government subsidies may be reduced in the future.
Eventually, higher education will evolve into three groups created from price pressures on universities, and each school will have to decide what direction they wish to take to carry on.
The Elite: Top-tier universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford will not change at all. They will be very selective, carry very few students, maintain the most prestige, and be attended by the richest, most connected people for top-dollar fees. If Harvard decided tomorrow that their tuition would be US$1 million a year, it would still have more students interested in enrolling than they can accommodate.
The Accessible: Entirely online schools that offer a good quality bare-bones education at a very inexpensive price. Each one will approach it with their own style, varying in size, and how many majors they offer. My own University of the People, which is nonprofit, tuition-free and US-accredited, fits into this category.
The Specialists: This will be the largest of the three groups, making up the middle ground. Colleges will specialize in their offerings to the point where higher education will look more like commodities. For example, some universities will market themselves as the foremost authorities on ancient Greece. Students will have to decide how much they are willing to pay to study that topic, perhaps US$10,000-15,000 a year, not the US$70,000-$100,000 universities have been accustomed to charging. Other institutions will promote their arrangements with large corporations who will hire their best graduates. They may specialize by their locality, sports teams, size, blend of offline and online classes, or whatever each one decides is their biggest selling point, and they will determine a price tag to go with that.
Outside the US, online education has been a more difficult proposition, but the coronavirus might level the playing field. Countries might be forced to improve their internet capacity and penetration so students can learn online inexpensively. In the coronavirus’ aftermath, building bricks-and-mortar schools will be impractical and expensive. I have high hopes for parts of Africa catching up quickly because there are not enough places at their universities.
In the Arab world, online education is rare and, in spring 2020, most universities simply shut down because of the coronavirus. Recognizing that online education is the only way for them to catch up with 21st-century methodologies in the pandemic’s aftermath. In India, online studies at the tertiary level were subject to heavy restrictions until recently. In February, just before Covid-19 struck, the government announced that universities would be allowed to offer online degrees for the first time. As another country with a drastic shortage of university seats, India could expand online offerings to accommodate the student demand driven by the pandemic preventing them from studying overseas.
There is no doubt that many students desire to be world travelers but are frustrated by the movement restrictions the virus could impose for a while. If students cannot get to the countries in which they wish to study, then it makes sense to provide them with an immersive online experience. They can study with students from around the world, make friends, and get to know other cultures without the risk of infection. In every one of our own courses at University of the People, we have 20 students from 20 countries. Everybody works in teams from around the world. They are so grateful for an opportunity that they may not have had under other circumstances.
It is clear to everyone that there could be additional waves of pandemic infections or new viruses could even emerge. This is the time for governments and institutions to preserve and cultivate their online systems. This is the only solution for securing the future of higher education.