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How COVID-19 Has Impacted Universities Worldwide

Episode 28

September 29, 2020 30 minutes


The global pandemic first impacted U.S. college campuses toward the end of the last academic year. At the same time, universities in Australia and New Zealand had to shut down just as their new school year was beginning.

The collapse in revenue from international students was devastating. In the UK, where the fall semester is just underway, university officials wonder if reported outbreaks on U.S. college campuses offer a preview of what’s in store for them. EAB’s John Workman and Michael Fischer look beyond US borders and discuss what we’ve learned by watching how political forces and health care systems have shaped responses to the pandemic in different countries.

They also discuss why the early decision made by Canadian institutions to go almost entirely online this fall enabled them to focus their planning and make marked improvement in the virtual experience.


00:12 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is office hours. The past few months have been anything but calm for colleges and universities here in the US, but today we turn our sights a bit outward to discuss what’s been going on in countries around the globe. As US institutions shut down in the spring, at the end of the academic year, Australia, New Zealand, they had to shut down just as the new school year was beginning. Their institutions are also reeling from the financial impact from the loss of a lot of international students. In the UK, we’ve got university leaders that are wondering, will the outbreaks on college campuses here in the US offer a preview of what’s to come, even as their country’s going back into shutdown with the second wave of infections?

00:52 MP: On today’s episode, we’ll seek to better understand what’s taking place beyond the US borders with EAB’s John Workman and Michael Fischer. We’re gonna talk about the political forces and the healthcare systems that shaped the COVID response in other countries, as well as some early decisions in Canada to go almost entirely remote this fall, which allowed them to focus and make drastic improvements to the virtual experience. Thanks for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:26 Michael Fischer: Enjoying a beautiful fall day here in Maryland. My name is Michael Fischer, and I am joined today by John Workman for EAB’s Office Hours. John, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

01:39 John Workman: You too, thank you for having me.

01:41 MF: Now, John, I know that you work really closely with our international partners, and I’m sure prior to the coronavirus pandemic that we’re now in that that gave you a chance to do some travel to locations afar. Over the course of your time, what was the most interesting place that you had a chance to visit?

02:02 JW: Well, London is our home base across the Atlantic. We have several employees stationed there, and just like we host executive round tables in our Washington, DC offices, we do the same in London. So I travel to London several times a year, which is great. I love London. It’s one of my favorite cities. To your point, in 2020, we had partner events booked in Edinburgh and Sydney, which are also two of my favorite places, as well as Helsinki, which I’ve never visited, so I was looking forward to that, but just like everyone else, all my travel plans went up in smoke this year.

02:34 JW: But COVID aside, EAB has meaningfully expanded our global footprint the last few years. So we now partner with 38 institutions in Canada, 27 in the United Kingdom, three in Ireland, and then one in each of Finland, New Zealand, Peru, and India. And that’s very exciting for us at EAB obviously, but it also benefits our partner institutions, including partners in the US. What we’re finding is that our best practice research model is borderless. Higher ed institutions across the globe share a pretty similar set of challenges and opportunities and they can learn a lot from each other. EAB’s ultimate aim is to find the best ideas wherever they live. The wider our global network, the further we look, the better and more innovative ideas we should find, and then we can report that back to our Higher ed leader partners. We think a globally-focused EAB is ultimately more valuable to our partner institutions.

03:33 MF: Well, there’s no question that the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, has been a global challenge over the last six, seven, eight months, so I think there’s great value in us today discussing how campuses worldwide are responding to the pandemic and what their outlook might be for the future. Now, when it comes to other countries, I think most Americans, most people from the United States, would naturally first look to our neighbor to the north, so let me ask, John, what’s been your sense of the Canadian higher education response to COVID-19?

04:11 JW: There are obviously a lot of personal and formal relationships between US and Canadian institutions, so I imagine a lot of US listeners have a sense that Canada is going mostly virtual. There are exceptions. The University of Toronto, which is the largest institution in Canada, is taking a hybrid or a high flex approach. They’re gonna have some students back on campus, some small classes and labs in-person, but most instructions will be virtual, and the majority of institutions in Canada are fully virtual for the fall or maybe 99% virtual, a handful of students on campus, maybe at risk students, international students.

04:47 MF: Sure. Sure.

04:48 JW: Importantly, many Canadian institutions made the decision to go virtual back in May and June, so one of the obvious advantages that has given them is extra planning time. There is some early anecdotal evidence that suggests the virtual experience at Canadian institutions is meaningfully improved from the rapid transition last spring.

05:10 MF: And that’s in pretty strong contrast to what we’ve seen in the United States. One survey that I saw found that less than 4% of institutions were virtual only this fall or 99% virtual, which has left institutions open to a lot of pressures from students, parents, and sometimes politicians to close when cases begin to percolate on campus. What about our colleagues across the pond in the United Kingdom and Ireland, what’d their prospects look like?

05:43 JW: In many ways, universities in the UK and Ireland are taking the approach that is most similar to the one that we see here in the US, meaning they have a desire to get many, if not all, traditional undergrads and grad students back physically on campus and to have most instruction be done in-person. But the first thing you have to understand is this is still all in the future tense, the standard start date in the UK is around October 1st, plus or minus a week. The student move in week is a week or two before that. Scotland usually starts a bit earlier than the rest of the UK. University of Edinburgh move in started back on September 14th, for instance. But as we record this on September 22nd, move in for most universities in England is this week, maybe even at the end of this week. Which is all to say that the UK is right at the beginning of this experiment, to bring students back to campus. The planning for that is… I don’t think would be too surprising, it is very similar to what we see in the US. If you eavesdropped on one of our conversations with our UK or Irish partners, other than the accents, you would think that the conversation sounded very familiar.

06:57 JW: Large lectures will be online. Building usage has been adjusted for social distancing and reduced foot traffic. There are restrictions on the number of people that can be in a particular building at any one time. Timetables have been staggered to prevent crowded corridors and to allow for more cleaning between classes, and masks are mandated indoors and some outdoor spaces. There have been additions to the student codes of conduct to comply with safety standards. There’s been equipment changes that have been made for better ventilation, and the list goes on. But overall, very similar to the tactics that we see US schools implementing.

07:34 MF: And certainly, as you alluded to, the situation on the ground is changing quite rapidly, as we have this conversation, the United Kingdom just changed its phase level for… Its alert level for the pandemic because of a concern of an increase in outbreak of cases. But since US institutions are a few weeks ahead of the British Isles, I think it would be interesting to see how much parallel there is between what’s happened in the United States and what happens over in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Will there be a few viral stories that early on shape the narrative of what’s going on in higher ed, even when most institutions have a relatively good control over the anticipated outbreaks? That’s still to be played out as you noted, but when you compare the US and the United Kingdom to countries like Canada, Germany, France, many European countries, I see stark differences in their approach to re-populating campus. Do you have a theory for why the US and the UK have been so aggressive in their reopening strategy?

08:44 JW: As always with complex decisions like this, there are a host of reasons, there’s a lot of cultural and political reasons that are a little harder to untangle, but there are two concrete factors that I think explain a lot of why the US and the UK have pushed in this direction. Number one is finances play a key part, and I wanna be clear, I’m not saying that this is purely a financial decision, but it is a part of it. So if you look at data sets like the National Center for Education Statistics, you can look at the percentage of each country’s higher ed expenditures or higher ed budgets that come from student tuition and fees, and just to be clear that that fee part would include things like room and board. There are seven countries that are above 60% of expenditures from student tuition and fees and they’re all pretty tightly bunched together. The UK is number two with 68%, and the US is number four with 65%, and then Australia is number 7. In case you’re curious, the others are Japan, South Korea, Chile, and Colombia. And then there is a big drop off after those seven. There are no other countries even in the 50% range.

09:53 JW: Let’s contrast that to Canadian higher education, which is overall a highly similar system to the US and the UK when it comes to instructional models, student make up, their research models, and so on, but only 46% of their aggregate higher ed expenditures come from tuition and fees. So there’s just not the same financial urgency. Meanwhile, US and UK institutions are frankly under more pressure to deliver the overall typical experience that students and families expect. And that actually leads into the second reason, and that’s the importance of the campus experience. We know that in the US, instruction is only part of the overall university package.

10:34 JW: Attending university usually means leaving home and living in a different city for a more fully immersive experience. The social and extra-curricular aspects of university are just as important as the instruction, maybe more important. We’re seeing that now at many institutions, as students move back to campus, even though they know they will be taking mostly virtual classes, they want to be physically present to take classes synchronously with each other. That same dynamic is true at UK institutions. They have a very similar campus experience and overall value proposition. Probably better said, we have a very similar model to the UK since we generally inherited it from them.

11:18 JW: Instruction is only a part of it, students want to be on campus with each other. Now that probably sounds very obvious to US listeners, almost tautological, but that isn’t the case in most other places. The UK and the US institutional leaders know that without that in-person campus experience, university just isn’t as appealing to a lot of traditional undergrads.

11:39 MF: No. I think that’s certainly right. We’ve talked to alumni, or even in casual conversation, and people think back to their collegiate experience, and it’s oftentimes those social and extra-curricular activities that remain lodged in their memory, maybe a class or a professor here or there, but the instruction may fall to second place in the grand scheme. But speaking of that campus experience, there seems to be a strong tension between being on campus, living on campus, dwelling on campus, and the necessities of public health during a pandemic. In fact, one of our colleagues at EAB outlined recently the contradictions between what the World Health Organization and in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend for day-to-day life and what’s considered “normal” for undergraduates on campus. That seems to require campuses to make further efforts to de-densify and restrict the number of students that are coming on to campus, especially as campuses see more and more outbreaks.

12:44 MF: The number right now in the United States, I believe, is close to 1,200 institutions that have at least a couple of cases tested positive on their campuses. But even so, while in the US there have been many headline stories about COVID outbreaks on collegiate campuses, according to the data collected by the New York Times, they still only account for about 1% of all cases in the United States. So do we think that the experience in the United Kingdom and Ireland is going to follow a similar path?

13:16 JW: Well, 2020 has been pretty unpredictable so far, so you’re not gonna get me to make any firm predictions, but if you look at both sectors, there are four circumstances that stand out and might signal that UK higher ed could have a different experience bringing students back to campus. Number one, just look at the COVID numbers. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the initial COVID response in the UK was flawed. Their per capita case rate and death rate were right there with the US. But across the summer, they have largely turned it around. As of September 17th, the US had roughly 2,000 cases per 100,000 people, while the UK has only seen about 570 cases per 100,000, so call it roughly four times fewer cases per capita.

14:10 JW: Now, Michael, you alluded earlier, much of Europe is experiencing a “second wave” of cases and rates in the UK have started to tick back up, the country actually just moved their threat level from three up to four, it’s on a five-point scale, five being a lockdown. So it is definitely a concern and something to watch, but the total current numbers are more favorable in the UK than in the US, and as students head back to campus, there are significantly fewer cases there. Now, that doesn’t guarantee success by any stretch. Just like in the US, there are gonna be flare-ups, there will be residence halls placed in quarantine, there will likely be a few campuses that have to temporarily suspend in-person classes for a few weeks, but there’s a possibility that it’s on an overall lower scale than we have seen in the US so far.

15:00 JW: So that’s the first reason. The second thing that stands out is that UK universities have mostly closed programs and that makes it easier to create bubbles. Let me unpack that a little bit. Most undergraduate degrees in the UK are three years, Scotland, again, is an exception here at four. But one reason why degrees are shorter in the UK is that there is not the same expectation or a requirement for Gen Ed or electives. Students apply to a particular course, what we would call a major, say journalism or physics, and then you’re in that journalism or physics course and you pretty much only take classes in that course and you only take classes with other people in that course, so there’s just not nearly as much cross-pollination between students, at least from an instructional perspective.

15:47 MF: There seems to be a parallel there to something that we’re seeing more in the K-12 space in the United States, which is podding, that’s where you create groups of students, either at classes or other levels, that come into the primary or secondary school on alternating days, that way, if a student tests positive for the disease, they only have to isolate that pod or class of students, as opposed to having to shut down the entire school or the larger community because of it.

16:18 JW: Yeah. Exactly, I think that gives them an advantage when it comes to the strategies around containment. The third reason why the UK might have a different experience bringing students back is a greater central government coordination. Basically, the point here is the UK has the NHS. They have the National Health Service. Testing and contact tracing and treatment, that’s all centralized and handled by the NHS, and that freed up a ton of leadership time. Contrast that to US colleges and universities where executive teams spent hundreds of hours across the summer becoming armchair epidemiologists and creating their own testing regimes and probably reinventing the wheel over and over again across the sector. But to be fair, this central coordination in the UK hasn’t gone perfectly. Guidance and protocols have shifted a couple of times across the summer. So while universities in the UK were freed up from a lot of the extensive planning requirements that their US counterparts faced, they have also been caught flat-footed a few times when the guidance suddenly shifted.

17:24 JW: So a recent example is around asymptomatic testing of students, so the Scottish government had said all summer, “We’re gonna do mandatory testing for all students when they arrive on campus and then we’ll do it again five days later.” But then at the midnight hour, it switched to voluntary testing. And leaders from St. Andrews, obviously a well-known Scottish university, they’re now publicly stating, “Hey, look, we planned around that promise.” And they’re actively lobbying the government to follow through on that original plan.

17:52 MF: Yeah. In the United States, we think about four pillars of re-populating campus, two of which are contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine, and having the right data and communicating that out, all of which would be taken off by those central authorities that you spoke of there. But US leaders did spend a lot of time developing those plans and from the plans that we saw, they were fairly robust. It seems like where American campuses got into trouble early on in the re-population effort was either, A, not being able to implement or modify those plans fast enough once they actually started being real and outbreaks starting to took place on campus, or alternatively, they started getting either internal or external pressure from students, parents, politicians, news organizations that forced the institutions to abandon the plans that they had put in place because they just couldn’t resist the criticism that was being placed upon them. So for all that’s been written about the topic though, it seems like almost every institution that decided to bring students to campus this fall had planned for some cases to occur on that campus, and that’s probably something that we should anticipate will be the same in the United Kingdom and in Ireland.

19:09 JW: Yeah, and it definitely is. Nobody is assuming that they’re gonna have a completely clean bill of health, so to speak, they’re all preparing for the inevitable flare up here and there. The fourth and final difference I wanted to call out is the type and size of non-academic or extracurricular space on UK campuses. So for a lot of US listeners, the mental image that they might have of UK institutions, probably over informed by Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, and in particular that Hogwarts style living space and shared dining halls with the long wooden tables, and there is still some of that at those older institutions, definitely more than you see here in the US, although I will say to be fair, my wife attended the University of Michigan and that’s exactly the kind of residence hall that she lived in there, so it does exist in the US too. But overall, university-provided student housing is actually less common in the UK than it is in the US. Private sector student housing and P3 arrangements are more common. And then likewise, on average, there’s fewer university-provided dining facilities as well.

20:17 JW: Now, up for debate, if that’s a good or bad thing. Earlier this summer, I think both US and UK leaders and probably EAB would have pointed to that as an advantage. University leaders in the US spent a lot of time making sure that res halls and dining spaces were safe and socially distant compliant, and UK institutions had relatively less headache there. But now with what we’re seeing here in the US the last month, most of the COVID spread seems to be occurring off-campus. It’s at parties, other large gatherings. The safety measures that US institutions put in place seem to be working, it’s the space that’s outside their control where they’re seeing most of the spread. So you could argue that UK institutions might actually be more exposed to that risk.

21:02 MF: And that risk is something of a black box uncertainty because it’s hard to fully contact trace to identify the singular sources of infections. And in the US early on, it seems that this has been particularly problematic because students may not be incented to fully detail their activities to avoid, for example, getting their friends in trouble if they say who exactly was at the party that evening. But from what we have seen, de-densification has been the most successful component of many universities’ plans, especially when you can co-op student influencers on Instagram or other social media platforms, and deploy student ambassadors to help by passing out masks to students on campus who aren’t wearing them and making social distancing seem “cooler” than perhaps it would naturally be. Do you get the sense, talking to our partners overseas, that compliance is an issue that UK institutions are worried about?

22:05 JW: Well, with students just now arriving on campus, it’s too early to say how that will play out live, so to speak, but definitely the planning in the summer, the conversations that we had with the UK partners, again, very similar to the ones we were having with US institutions. They are worried about students being students, so to speak, and they’ve implemented very similar rules about social distancing, masks. They’ve made additions to their codes of conduct. On the whole, I’d expect to see pretty similar levels of compliance there, if anything, slightly better, since COVID has not been politicized in the UK as it has in the US, but overall, I expect their overwhelming majority of students will follow the rules. They’ll wear masks. They’ll social distance. But let’s be honest, there’s also bound to be a few parties here and there too, it won’t be perfect.

22:57 MF: Yeah, and this is the trade-off when re-opening any portion of our society, there’s no such thing as a risk-less activity. Well, I think we saw over the summer, the data that I’ve had a chance to look over, is that survey after survey of students said that they would be willing to abide by social distancing if campuses reopened and most probably have. I think the majority of students probably went on to campus with the expectation that they were going to keep distancing, wear masks, but a few bad apples and some very prominent stories that got picked up in the media and the news have tainted the narrative, and as one university president told us, potentially ruined the opportunity for everyone to have an on-campus educational experience this fall and maybe even the spring. But as I noted earlier, this is the challenge of the narrative. Most colleges are seeing only a few campuses, a handful, were actually taking place on their campuses. And they anticipated and planned for this to happen. As we mentioned, the plan always was for some sort of isolation and quarantine to take place. No one was going to be spotless throughout this period.

24:12 MF: Most knew that students couldn’t be expected to be publicly masked for 18 hours a day, that’s not something I would wanna do, let alone someone who is at a different state of life, so they built in safeguards, but when a single case leads to calls for a campus to close because it’s too dangerous, it’s too risky, and that potentially leads to the spread of the disease far more extensively by sending students home to their unprotected communities, I think it’s hard for campus leaders to always stick to their plans, but that’s something we’ve been encouraging leaders after all the planning’s been done, make sure that you actually execute on those plans as opposed to abandoning them at the first moment that it seems necessary to do so. We only have a little bit of time left, but John, at the beginning of the conversation, you mentioned that we have had the chance to work in close proximity with some partners in Australia and New Zealand, and I think that’s a part of the world that many in the United States have heard has maybe had a better situation than we have, what’s going on with our friends in the Southern Hemisphere?

25:22 JW: We all think of Australia and New Zealand as the great success stories in COVID containment, which is true. Even if you account for the recent flare-ups in Melbourne and Auckland, those two countries have had by far and away some of the lowest per capita case rates and death rates. But for as well as the countries as a whole have done, the higher ed sectors are faring far worse than their counterparts in the US, Canada, UK, and Ireland, and in particular, they’ve been hit with a pretty devastating double whammy. So first, they have a much higher dependence on international students. Look at the latest OECD data, 23% of Australian enrollment is international students. That is technically number two in the world behind Luxemburg, but among the large education markets, Australia is the most dependent on international students, particularly Chinese and Indian students. The second part of the double whammy was the timing of when COVID hit. In the Northern Hemisphere, COVID hit in the middle of the spring semester, at the end of the academic year. International students were already in the country, they were here, they were attending classes. And after COVID hit, the majority of international students stayed in country across the summer, 92% of them, according to one survey that I saw.

26:40 JW: So when universities in the US and Canada and UK say that they are worried about international student numbers this year, they are mainly talking about the loss of would-be first-year international undergrads and grad students. Most of the existing students never left. But in Australia and New Zealand, the academic year starts in late February, early March, so COVID hit right before the beginning of the year. That in and of itself was more disruptive, but particularly to international student travel. Most students went home for summer break, and while they’re away, COVID hits, the borders close, and they can’t get back.

27:18 JW: So Australia and New Zealand aren’t facing the loss of just those would-be first year students, like US and UK, they lost a large percentage of all of their international students. And obviously they’ve pursued virtual learning just like everyone else, but as we know, international students don’t always have the necessary technology or learning environments in their home country to be able to make virtual learning work. So a huge chunk of their revenue essentially evaporated overnight. As you’d expect, it’s the largest and most research-intensive institutions that have the biggest percentage of international students, so that they have been the ones impacted the most, and those universities are having to make some pretty tough decisions right now, including layoffs. I’ll give you some examples. University of Melbourne says they expect to lose one billion Australian dollars over the next three years, and they’re eliminating 450 jobs.

28:11 JW: Monash University, which is actually the largest university by enrollment in Australia, they’re cutting 277 jobs right now. Many institutions are starting voluntary separation plans, what they call voluntary redundancies. The lobbying group, Universities Australia, projects that the sector as a whole will lose over 21,000 jobs by the time that this is all over. Now, New Zealand is not as dependent on international student fees as Australia, so the impact has not been as severe, but their budgets are still tightening there too. So the COVID story in those countries has mainly been an international student and budgetary one. But just to connect back to some of our earlier discussion, as far as instruction in those countries, their academic year is now nearing an end, and next year doesn’t start until February or March, so many institutions are as you’d expect, they’re gonna wait and see how things develop in between now and then, but we are starting to see a handful of plans begin to firm up. So for instance, Queensland University announced earlier this month that they expect all lecturers will continue to be virtual next semester, and again, next semester for them means early 2021, with the hope for some in-person and tutorial labs to go alongside that.

29:29 MF: Well, it sounds like the next couple of months across the world will be crucial in understanding the trajectory of higher education and the coronavirus, pending against a lot of major decisions that will impact planning over 2021 will be being made. So we’ll have to keep an eye on that and unfortunately, at the end of our time, report back on that on a later period, but John, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you today. Thanks so much for being with us here on EAB’s Office Hours.

30:00 JW: It’s great to be here.

30:09 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us next week when Meacie Fairfax and Ed Venit are back to talk about the power of virtual advising, and it’s positive impact on student success, that’s likely to continue even after we emerge from the pandemic. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish for Office Hours with EAB.

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