The future of universities: ‘I don’t think I am getting my money’s worth at the moment’

A foreign student crisis, the rise of remote learning and some very expensive pianos lie in wait for higher education

Universities and pipe system illustration

Construction crews are applying the final touches to the New Era Development on the edge of Sheffield’s centre. Gleaming new blocks containing hundreds of student rooms tower over the city’s ring road.

In a few weeks a composite panda – the symbol of Chinese good fortune – is due to be winched onto the roof.

This £74m development, funded entirely by investment from Beijing, is billed as Sheffield’s 'China Town'. It will house office blocks, Chinese restaurants, shops and 649 rooms for international students ranging from premier to ‘cosy’. But on this sweltering August day there is one cloud on the horizon – the students are nowhere to be seen.

“Before coronavirus it looked fantastic,” says the managing director of New Era, Jerry Cheung. Blueprints of his development, which has been planned since 2005 and building since 2014, are spread across his office desk. “After all the years of construction I was looking forward to having an easier time," he says. "But then Covid-19 came along.”  

On the international and domestic front, the class of Covid-19 will be like no other. The Government’s A-level about-turn this week is indicative of the crisis precipitated by the pandemic in the higher education sector and the unknowns that lie ahead.

Following education secretary Gavin Williamson’s decision to hand pupils the grades they were predicted by their teachers, rather than those calculated by computer algorithm, universities are now braced for a surge of new pupils while at the same time trying to work out how to accommodate them in an era of social distancing. 

Vice-chancellors have warned ministers they urgently require a cash injection in order to meet the sudden demand for places – and beyond that immediate concern, to help navigate the months and years to come.

While universities across the world are braced for a financial hit in the fallout from the pandemic, those in Britain, the US, Australia and Canada are expected to fare particularly badly due to the reliance on income generated by foreign students. Across those four countries the number of foreign students has risen from 2m to 5m in the past 20 years - representing a golden era of university expansion which some now fear to be over.

According to a recent report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies 13 (unnamed) British universities face a “very real prospect” of insolvency as a result of the pandemic unless they receive a government bailout. The central estimate in the study is an £11bn loss to the university sector as a whole, around a quarter of its annual income. In order to survive in the long-term, higher education must embark on nothing short of a revolution.

When Jerry Cheung first arrived in Sheffield from Hong Kong with his family in 1975, he says the Chinese community numbered in its hundreds. Later working in the city steel mills he experienced racism among his colleagues which he puts down to ignorance of another culture. “I always had a burning desire to let people know more about the Chinese,” he says.

Jerry Cheung has spent 45 years in Sheffield

In recent years, however, the Chinese student population has exploded in Sheffield, as it has in university cities across the country, reshaping the skyline in the process. Since 2014-15, the number of Chinese students in the UK has risen from 89,540 to 120,385. Sheffield University alone is estimated to earn £85m a year from Chinese students who contribute 26 per cent of the total tuition fee income.

Cheung is adamant that at least as far as his development is concerned, the students will come. He says discussions are ongoing among northern universities to charter flights to bring the students in. So far, 550 international students have booked for the year leaving him with just 100 rooms to fill, although with term not starting until October he admits there is still the potential for students to change their minds.

“We have a channel to communicate with the students and a lot of them are expressing concerns or worries,” he says. “What they want to know is will we still be looked after as we were before?”

Cheung has led development of Sheffield's New Era Credit: DAVID ROSE

Such concern will send a chill down the spines of university vice chancellors up and down the land. With flights grounded and borders closed due to the pandemic, the vital source of income that international students provide is at sudden jeopardy placing the business model on which so many universities rely at risk. 

Even with the sudden influx of more domestic students, the £9,250 annual fees they pay are well below what foreign students contribute. 

And what of the experience they will be paying for? For those arriving on campus next month the student experience will be like no other. Cooped up in student halls, following lectures on Zoom, and barred from the sort of nights out that make up the typical university experience, will no doubt leave many questioning whether it is really worth it? 

Lingzhun Kuang is one of those students who will not be making the journey this year. The 27-year-old, who lives in Shanghai, had been planning to move to Manchester this autumn to begin a PhD, fittingly, on the internationalisation of Chinese higher education. 

Speaking via Zoom she says the costs of the studies will be about £110,000 and due to the university suspending some of its scholarships this year she has been forced to defer. 

Having already completed a masters at Manchester University in 2016 at a cost of around £30,000 in fees and accommodation, she says the draw of the UK among Chinese students is three-fold: high global university rankings, relative affordability (compared to the US, for example) and British culture. Students, she says, are eager to experience the English countryside and home of Harry Potter. Manchester’s football prowess helps draw students in. The popularity of snooker in China has also raised Sheffield’s international profile, the city hosts the annual world championship at the Crucible. 

At present, however, the attraction appears to have waned. Kuang estimates around 40 or 50 per cent of Chinese students will choose to defer their offers until next year or beyond. “Before a vaccine comes out nobody can assure you won’t get infected,” she says. “People get insecure when facing uncertainty.”

Kuang - along with many others - believes growing international tensions between China and the West will also have a long-term impact on student numbers, although for now that will principally be in the US where President Trump’s bullish stance against Beijing has overshadowed the Huawei and Hong Kong furore in Britain. The US is currently the most popular destination for Chinese students, followed by the UK, but such is the growing hostility, that may soon change.

“There is a great possibility the US no longer stays the number one country for overseas studies for Chinese students,” she says. “To some extent, the influence of a tighter visa policy and worse political environment are even greater than the impact of the Covid crisis in the long run.”

Dr Miguel Antonio Lim is a senior lecturer in education and international development at Manchester University and agrees that many international students remain undecided. So too, that a further worsening of relations with Beijing or a spike in infections could be enough to deter the class of 2020 from making the journey.

“They want to come over but this is the crystal ball effect,” he says. “Until people make those actual decisions in early September it is really uncertain. The primary concern of students right now is really safety – that impression can change right until the last minute. If policies change or there is a really alarming spike that could affect them.”

In April, Manchester University – after University College London the second largest host of Chinese students in England - forecast a loss in income of £270m as a result of Covid-19 and is aiming to shave 15 to 25 per cent from its annual income to mitigate the impact. According to Dr Lim that means a freeze on new hires, voluntary redundancies, a freeze on capital spending where possible and a freeze on expense accounts.

But he stresses the absence of international students will also be felt in other ways. Research conducted by international students plays a vital role in driving institutions up the global rankings and increasing their appeal. A recent survey conducted among 19 so-called education agents which recruit students across nine Chinese cities has revealed enquiries about international university courses for 2021 are already down compared to previous years. “There really is potential for severe short term disruption,” he says.

Against this backdrop of dire financial predictions, Sheffield University has in recent weeks sparked outrage with the news it is spending £472,000 on 17 Steinway pianos for its music department. 

Staff members currently undergoing rounds of voluntary redundancies have criticised the purchase as a “display of elitism” and an “obtuse gesture”. But the university’s defence, that the pianos will “enhance the student experience”, is an interesting indication of the future emphasis institutions will place on the quality of campus life.

Certainly over the next academic year the traditional student experience of freshers' week, cavernous lecture halls, parties and societies will be dramatically curtailed. Such activities are, after all, ideal for precipitating the spread of the virus. Cambridge University was the first to ban face-to-face lectures until 2021 with many others expected to follow suit for the next academic year. 

In June, Universities UK (UUK), the vice-Chancellor membership organisation, outlined a series of suggestions to navigate the forthcoming academic year. Students, according to the advice, would be grouped into “bubbles” to live and study together in a bid to limit the transmission of coronavirus on campus. Under the arrangement students would be divided into groups from the same course and allocated the same hall of residence. Those taking up places at university for the first time this autumn are also likely to be greeted by a “virtual” freshers' week and one-way systems across campus. 

Covid-19 has accelerated a transformation that the digital revolution was already bringing about – with students able to access lectures and seminars digitally, what is the point of paying £9,250 a year (the capped cost of student fees) for the privilege? The shift online has also thrown up new security headaches for universities to address. During the spring there were numerous reports of hackers ‘Zoom-bombing’ school and university lectures and displaying racist and obscene images on people’s screens.

Sir Anthony Seldon is the vice chancellor of Buckingham University and author of The Fourth Education Revolution which examines the dominant role technology will play in education. A new edition assessing the impact of Covid-19 is being published next month. 

“Coronavirus is the biggest thing to hit universities, no doubt about that”, he says. Combined with the digital revolution, the pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the need for higher education to adapt. 

The traditional university model of lectures, seminars and library visits is, he says, increasingly anachronistic in the digital age. Now that students can access so many resources online the challenge for institutions is to provide them with added value. 

In order to survive in the long term one of two things must happen. Either universities cut their fees – something Seldon admits no institution will willingly do – or transform their offering to better justify them.

“It’s going to accelerate what was already happening at a slow pace,” he says, pointing to the digital revolution in education. “And it’s going to force universities to reflect on why students need to come residentially, or even for the day, and put a greater emphasis on the communal, social, wellbeing and developmental aspects - the roundness of students’ lives.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has raised the prospect of so-called 'differential fees' - a model also being touted in Australia - where fees are lowered for subjects in areas deemed of important future employment growth. According to Anthony Seldon, more two-year degrees, as pioneered by Buckingham University, is another possibility. This accelerated programme means students end up paying 20 per cent less for the same degree. The university misses out on extra income by not being able to lease its buildings for the lucrative conference trade each summer as they are in use year round. But equally, Seldon points out, this has made it less financially exposed to external events such as the impact of Covid-19.

Blended degrees mixing remote and in person teaching – such as those hastily being developed by academics across Britain this summer – will also become mainstream. As an illustration of the university course of the future, Seldon points to Buckingham's new Centre for Artificial Intelligence which from 2021 will be delivering two courses – undergraduate history and postgraduate cyber security – through the use of AI in what is believed to be a world first. The centre was developed with £2m of funding through the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership. For a generation graduating in the aftermath of the worst recession on record, this combination of education and industry is seen as a vital draw.

As for the student experience, Seldon draws the comparison of how cinema has weathered the digital age. In order to take on the likes of Netflix, the traditional cavernous multiplex has evolved by introducing plush sofas, table service and a personalised experience attractive enough to justify the ticket price. Universities, he says, will have to similarly evolve to account for the debt students take on. Seldon boils this down to four key areas: personal development, job enhancement, enrichment and stimulation. 

In truth, the modern day student is already a far more discerning customer than public perception suggests. Long gone is the anarchic caricature of the 80s sitcom, The Young Ones, or in subsequent generations, the feckless Countdown-watching layabout skipping lectures in a cloud of weed smoke. 

The increase in tuition fees combined with wider generational trends like young people drinking and smoking less and sharing an understandable rising concern about future prospects, means on the whole students now regard themselves far more as paying customers than previous generations. The relationship between students and staff has become transactional. And students are rightly concerned about what they will get for their money.

One 19-year-old English student at the University of Leicester, who prefers not to be named, recounts what the past few months have been like since lockdown commenced. Around three hours a day contact time has shrunk to nothing, he says. Despite being given a few learning resources at the beginning of the pandemic, he says since then there have been no Zoom lessons, and only the occasional email suggesting further reading. 

He has chosen his modules for the year ahead although remains in the dark about how they will be delivered. As for the social aspect, he is thankful to already have arranged a shared house and feels sorry for those about to embark on their first year. “I don’t think I am getting my money’s worth at the moment,” he says. “And I really feel for the people who are going to be starting next month.”

Other contemporaries, however, feel universities have stepped up to the mark. John Clayson, 20, is soon to enter the third year of an architecture degree at University College London. “I found work stayed continuous through lockdown even though it was virtually,” he says. “A lot of my course is one to one and two to one tutorial based learning.”

During the pandemic he moved back to his parents’ home in Surrey but is looking forward to returning to the student house in Camden he shares with four others. His understanding is that while the university is open next term he won’t be expected to go in, but wants to move back to enjoy the student experience regardless.

Social secretary for the university rugby team, John admits things will be very different next term. “A massive part of university is meeting people and friends at parties and that will be very limited,” he says.

That is not to say the past few months haven’t taken their toll. Being a student in the time of Covid is, he says, like being on the dance floor when the music suddenly stops. “There is the feeling you only have one chance in your life where you are studying something you really enjoy but at same time taking part in a really big social experience. 

“We have been unlucky, but it has opened other doors.”

Coming of age in the midst of a pandemic, a mammoth recession and A-level results generated by a computer algorithm, there remains a steeliness about today’s students that universities overlook at their peril. The question is whether universities will be able to match their ambitions.

  • The Future Of... is a longread series published on Thursdays at 8am. Previous chapters explored the future of Chinathe future of skyscrapers, and the future of meat. Return to next Thursday for the next instalment
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