COVID-19 has turned higher education upside down. Last year, the WEF reported that 90% of students around the world found themselves unable to attend classrooms. Many institutions have shifted to an online model to ensure provision has been unbroken.

This unique situation has brought many existential questions related to higher education to the fore. In truth, these questions have long been bubbling under the surface. The events of  last year, have merely served to throw them into sharp relief. The unifying theme: the role that universities play in our society.

In the marketized UK and US HE sectors, many students are asking what they should expect to get in return for their tuition fees. This is to be expected: a three or four-year degree in either country will set one back a five-figure sum.

These are not new questions. In the UK, widened access, employment-outcome focused messaging and TEF-contingent funding all contributed to a very 21st century conception of the student consumer. In the US, increasing tuition (already among the world’s highest) coupled with a tough pre-COVID employment market for graduates have led many to question if it is worth it.

The moving of provision online will give the question of value for money a slightly harder edge. With no direct access to lecturers, use of libraries, or social/networking opportunities, the university experience begins to look a bit threadbare.

Running parallel to the question of value for money, is the issue of the financial viability of universities under the current tuition-dependent funding model.

Deferrals, doubts over value, and impediments to international study will certainly eat into many university budgets.  Many institutions in the world’s two most popular study destinations rely on international student revenue. This will be a particularly hard blow, therefore.

Consequently, some institutions may not make it through the financial hardship caused by coronavirus. Recent years have seen a spate of closures and mergers of American law schools, as graduates were churned out at an unsustainable rate. Certain voices predict we will see a wider replication of this post-pandemic. The outspoken Scott Galloway of NYU Stern School is one such commentator, predicting a forthcoming “reckoning” for overpriced US universities.

In the UK, the IFS predicts that 13 institutions (accounting for 5% of students) may not be able to weather the storm financially without governmental assistance.

Value to society

While the pandemic may have been tough for universities, it has also provided a stage on which research institutions have shone. Institutions like Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins have played a central role in mapping the spread of coronavirus. Universities will certainly be involved in helping to find a vaccine, training the healthcare workers of the future, and mapping the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic.

Their value to society by no means ends there. Universities will continue to play a key role in the climate emergency, in addressing skills gaps, and nurturing the creative talents (‘Fatima’ aside) and leaders of the future. In the post-coronavirus economy, universities are also set to play a key role in helping workers retrain and reskill.

The extent to which universities succeed in the latter depends on the level of support at policy and university governance level for the ‘civic university’. This notion considers how universities can best serve local communities. There is some evidence that we are beginning to see this sort of thinking in certain regional institutions. Here, universities face competition for funding and students from FE colleges, online course providers, and other training providers.

A certain amount of soul searching will be needed at all levels in determining the role of universities in a post-pandemic world. No small amount of this will happen at policy level. While university administrators are key players, the rules of the game are determined by government.

In the US, much depends on the results of the 2020 presidential election, and the future president’s commitment to their campaign pledges. International students, access to education, and addressing inequalities in enrolments are among the issues on the table.

In the UK, shifts in university funding models and TEF have dominated the last decade. Before that we had the previous administration’s efforts to bring more people into higher education. As in the US, campus politics have attracted much media attention, with politically-correct students and academics clashing with ‘free speech’ advocates (usually) from the right of the political spectrum.

These issues have a significant bearing on the role universities will play, and touch on the existential questions to which we refer above.

Early universities: finishing schools for nobility

To get an idea of the shifting roles and perceptions of universities, it can be edifying to first look to the past.

The 11th century University of Bologna is usually considered to be the oldest university in the western world (though some form of teaching was occurring at what would become the University of Paris earlier in that century).

It was founded as an organisation of foreigners living in Bologna to (successfully) protect themselves from xenophobic attitudes and laws. These students commissioned scholars to teach a variety of lay and theological subjects, with law becoming the institution’s early area of focus. For most of its history, the institution taught solely at doctoral level.

After Bologna and Paris, we saw the founding of other notable medieval European universities, such as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, Palencia and Salamanca in Spain, Padua and Siena in Italy, Toulouse and Orleans in France, and Heidelberg and Cologne in Germany.

Students would tend to enrol in these universities at a younger age (from 14) and study a broad curriculum, covering the seven liberal arts (the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium of arithmetic, rhetoric, music, and astronomy). Further study in law, medicine, philosophy, or theology could follow. Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle, was hugely influential, though Latin was the lingua franca of teaching.

From these early days, politics played a significant role. Henry II banned English students from studying in Paris in the 12th century, for example, causing Oxford to grow rapidly. Until the University of Prague was founded in the mid-14thcentury, theology could only be taught at Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and Rome, allowing the pope to maintain a high level of control. In the 16th century, universities were at the heart of the Reformation. Martin Luther was a professor at Wittenberg, while the English Reformation was fomented at Cambridge.

Funding of universities in this period gives us a further indication of how they could be used as tools of power. In England, this fell to the crown – allowing them to be instrumentalised by Henry VIII in his break with the Catholic Church. This wouldn’t have been possible in France, where the Catholic Church funded universities. In Italy, on the other hand, universities like Bologna were funded by the students themselves.

Religious influence remains strong through the Early Modern Period

There was a huge increase in European universities over the Early Modern period (doubling between 1400 and 1600). Attendees would tend to be from noble families, which accounts somewhat for the early reputation students gained as idle troublemakers (often with the protection of the Church). Some commoners gained admittance, those with patrons or who gained an elementary education at monasteries. The vast majority were male, though the occasional woman did graduate and even teach at universities during this period (Bettisia Gozzadini taught law at Bologna as early as the 13th century).

It would be some time before universities would take their role at the forefront of scientific research. The received wisdom is that universities played only a limited role in the Scientific Revolution, sticking doggedly to the classical curriculum. They principally remained finishing schools for the aristocracy and the Church at this stage.

The religious focus was even stronger in the puritan US. Harvard is the country’s oldest institution, founded in 1632. The comparatively down-to-earth quality of the New World is evidenced in this institution’s long acceptance of farm produce, including livestock, to cover tuition. This perhaps also evidences a more democratic approach to education (slightly – not everyone would have enough cattle to pay for a Harvard education).

Other voices argue, however, that the philosophy taught in universities was more open to new forms of scientific thinking (the formal separation of science and philosophy did not occur until the 19th century). A case has also been made for the advancement of medicine in Renaissance universities. In the UK, the Scottish ‘ancient’ universities (St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen) are better known for this than the English pair.

The Enlightenment did begin to change things, however. Over the 18th century, we gradually saw Latin fading as the language of instruction, though a basic grasp of the language remained an entry requirement for many years. Yale was the first big US school to drop Latin requirements for entry, as late as 1931, while Oxford and Cambridge held out another 30 years.

UCL: a new secular tradition and the separation of disciplines

Oxford and Cambridge (England’s only universities until the 1820s) – remained conservative through the first half of the 19th century. Over half of students coming in were from the clergy and gentry, and over half of graduates (nearly two thirds at Oxford) went on to careers in the Church. Tuition remained prohibitively expensive. This limited access to higher education, even as elementary education became more and more widespread.

This led to the foundation of University College London in 1826 as a secular institution, influenced by the religious toleration then seen at German universities. (Other universities founded at this time, King’s College London and Durham University, were decidedly religious in focus). It was prevented from gaining a charter until 1835, showing the continuing power of the Church in education, led by Oxford and Cambridge. Another year passed before it could grant degrees, through the newly founded umbrella institution, the University of London.

We began to see other elements of change during this period. In 1858 examinations for the London BA were opened up to students across the British Empire, through the External Programme. This was effectively the first distance learning degree. In 1878 women were first allowed to study for degrees, with the first awarded in 1880 (200 years after Elena Cornaro Piscopia became the first woman to receive a doctorate, at Padua – promptly leading them to change the rules to prevent any other women following suit).

Around this period, we saw a greater separation of disciplines as well as an increasing focus on research rather than teaching across Europe, inspired by the Prussian thinker and polymath Alexander von Humboldt. While Oxford and Cambridge may have lagged behind at the start of the century, they are considered to have emerged from the Enlightenment embracing this spirit of enquiry. UCL was instrumental in the separation of scientific disciplines, pioneering bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in science in the 1860s.

It was also active in other disciplines. The Slade School of Fine Art was founded in 1870, and the university introduced a postgraduate teaching diploma in 1881. The latter is interesting for another reason. Many students across London were using the London matriculation exam (the University of London entrance exam) as their secondary school leaving certificate, with 25,000 estimated to have done so between 1858 and 1900.

Though it wasn’t designed for this purpose, this meant that UCL was involved with secondary education by default. A few years before introducing the teaching diploma, it began to appoint secondary school inspectors to monitor the quality of local schools, at the schools’ request.

Universities to serve communities

This history tells us various things about the development of the role of universities. From being places designed to train the sons of nobles and clergyman in law and theology, they had become diverse places aimed at fostering and furthering expertise in a range of specific disciplines. Universities by this time could more credibly be argued to serve wider society, rather than a small elite.

Illustratively, we also saw the UK’s first civic universities emerge in this period, designed to serve local communities. University colleges were founded in cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool throughout the 19th century, eventually being granted university status in the early 20th century.

Alongside these, we saw Mechanics’ Institutes opened around the country, to respond to the increased need for technical knowledge as the country industrialised. Many of these would later become polytechnic schools. The Manchester Institute, founded in 1824, which became the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, is one such example. We might note funding came from local businessmen, with the goal of educating workers in science (we might also note the Empire would have played a part in generating this funding).

In the US, Land Grant Universities, starting with Kansas State University in 1863, played a direct role in helping advance the still young nation. In the wake of the US Civil War, these institutions were given federal land in order to raise funds to cultivate expertise in key areas: agriculture, science, and engineering – and of course, warfare. Public universities had also existed in the US since the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill opened its doors in 1795 – less than 20 years following the Declaration of Independence.


Universities also played a part in powering national competitiveness. In the UK, we saw Imperial College London founded through a merger of the Royal College of Science and the Royal School of Mines in 1907 to challenge German supremacy in the sciences. In the 20th century US, MIT and Stanford are credited with intellectually powering the US military industrial complex; Columbia and Harvard were closely connected with the rise of Hollywood; and Berkeley and Stanford continue to feed talent and innovation to Silicon Valley.

Government funding began to be distributed to various British institutions in the late 19th century, to account for changing student demographics. Building on this, the University Grants Committee was set up in the wake of the First World War, to help universities and university colleges with financial hardship.

In the US, public institutions are funded by their respective states, while private institutions rely on alumni giving. Harvard alone is in possession of an endowment of $42 billion, around $2 billion of which was distributed as financial aid in the 2019 academic year. A long way from livestock then…

While growth slowed between the wars, following World War II, we saw a proliferation of new UK universities. Many of these were university colleges and polytechnics, empowered to give degrees to cater for hugely increased demand.

In the US, we saw the famous GI Bill following the war, aimed at helping military veterans re-enter society by gaining a heavily subsidised education.

In 1992, polytechnics in the UK were given full university status, doubling the number of institutions in the country. At this stage, students were given grants to study at university – a model of education as a public good. These were introduced in the 1960s (a means-tested £340), and increased substantially in the 1970s (£1,430) and 1980s (£2,265).

The modern HE market

Things, however, were beginning to change in the UK. Funding per student fell by around 40% between the 1970s and 1990s, becoming tied to university ‘performance’. Education was beginning to become a market. Participation had increased to one-in-five students by 1990, up from one-in-eight in the late 1970s.

Then, in 1998, following a governmental review, it was determined that students would be responsible for a share of their tuition (around £1,000 per year). Grants would be replaced by loans that students would pay back as a percentage of their earnings; a sort of graduate tax.

This came in the light of Tony Blair’s famous declaration that he wanted 50% of school leavers to go to university. This reflected the UK’s decisive shift to a service economy under Thatcher – a shift that required increased university participation.

It was not just a national upskilling exercise. We also saw education becoming a key export. The number of international students in the UK more than doubled between 2000 and 2018. In 2019, international students contributed £20 billion to the UK economy. In the US, 5.5% of the student body were international in 2019, contributing $45 billion. We might note, in both cases, education is very much a soft power asset. It is also a way of bringing in international talent. In 2017, 57% of Silicon Valley’s tech workforce was born outside of the US.

In the UK, the 50% target was reached in 2019, with five times as many degrees being handed out in 2019 as in 1990. By this point, UK tuition fees had been tripled twice. To £3,000 in 2006, and then to £9,000 a year in 2020.

The latter increase came in the wake of slashed teaching budgets following the Great Recession of 2008. Students (supported by loans and a progressive repayment schedule) would now be covering the cost of education.

This seemed to cement the view of education as a market and students as consumers. The UK is not alone – in the already expensive US market, tuition has increased by 25% in the last decade alone. Costs tend to be covered by large loans. The debt-heavy US model has been held up as an example of how not to go by some observers in the UK.

It seems we’re already on the way, however. A 2017 study found that half of UK students see themselves as consumers. This has already had some worrying side effects, including grade inflation in the face of ‘customer’ complaints at certain institutions.

Success in increasing access, but at what cost?

In this market, employability is a key challenge for universities and graduates alike. A recent study found that 17% of graduates are not workplace ready on completing their studies. 18% of graduates hold universities responsible for this. We can clearly see here that high fee-paying students and employers alike have expectations that graduates will emerge from their degrees fully ready for work. Particular shortcomings are identified in leadership, negotiation, and strategy and planning.

UK education secretary Gavin Williamson distanced himself from Blair’s 50% target in June 2020. He, instead, prefers a German-style vocationally focused approach. He is not alone: there are many that argue a glut of graduates and grade inflation have come to devalue the degree.

Then there is the question of whether graduates are a good fit for the market. In 2019, 31% of graduates were overeducated for the job in which they found themselves. Some sources even estimate that nearly half of 2019 graduates will never get a graduate-level job, let alone those graduating in 2020 or 2021. In the US, it’s the same story, with 41% of new graduates underemployed (34% of total graduates, so it doesn’t get much better further down the line).

This could be read as a sign of there being too high a concentration of graduates in the workforce. In 2017, this was at 40%, well up on 2002’s figure of 24%.

These stats do not tell the entire story, however. We might note that pre-COVID, graduate unemployment was at its lowest level since 1979 in the UK, at 5.1%. Graduate unemployment had also been decreasing in the US, to 3.8% in March 2020. We might also note that while recent graduates are more likely to be unemployed than the working age population, they are more likely to be employed than others in their age group (22-27). This is also the case in the UK.

While this does not necessarily address the issue of underemployment, we might note that the positive UK figure has been linked to graduates being employed to balance skills shortages. STEM graduates moving into IT in particular moved the needle in a positive direction.

Liberal arts still have a place

A narrow focus on immediate employability can sometimes be a reductive approach. Particularly if we want to resist the notion of students as consumers, with university education reduced to a transaction.

For one thing, this approach can neglect the value of subjects that fall outside of the lucrative STEM or FAME categories. Leaving aside the intrinsic value of AHSS subjects, many challenges we face as a society cannot be solved in a laboratory. Issues like the inequalities at the root of the BLM movement require the knowledge, empathy, and critical thinking at the heart of these disciplines (which as the decidedly unromantic Deloitte and others point out, are also much called for in the workplace).

In this context, the pulling of funding for these subjects in the UK, combined with revenue-orientated university governance in the light of a wider loss of funding, is problematic. We also see an ongoing threat to pull arts and humanities funding in the US, heightened in times of potential austerity such as that we may be facing. Even Obama was guilty of this in the early days of his administration, though he did increase funding later in his tenure.

This would seem to suggest a narrowing of the university mission. A reduction in scholarship for its own sake for one thing (some are unopposed to this break from historic universities; others argue that such scholarship is so synonymous with the university that it is impossible to even make a cogent case in its defence) on the one hand.

And on the other, a hard ‘skills’ focus that does not produce the rounded, creative thinkers needed by human societyacross the world. This is not to deny the importance of technical skills (on which, more below); only to suggest too concerted a focus on these can be reductive.

This raises a key existential question about the purpose of the university in the modern world. Are they simply for getting students ready for technical professions or is there a greater burden to produce well-rounded citizens?

The second coming of the civic university

Questions of how universities serve societies will become ever more pertinent after the events of 2020. Above, we discussed the birth of the civic university in the UK in the 19th century. These universities were created with a view to serve local communities, often in the midlands and north of England, to meet increasing demand for education and training.

To many of these communities, it may certainly feel that this connection has been lost in the transition to a marketized model of HE. Certainly in the wake of COVID-19, there is a strong feeling that universities must play a stronger civic role, helping to retrain local communities through offering lower cost and shorter options.

The UPP Foundation has published several papers considering how we might move towards a civic university model in the UK. This is founded around four key principles: agreement of how communities can be served; measuring success; the sharing of best practice; and, of course, funding. The FE sector, and short online course providers such as Coursera or the UK’s FutureLearn will be competing with universities in this space. Though, MOOC providers work with university partners, so might be considered an alternative channel to providing accessible education.

The US model is proposed as one to which we might look for inspiration. There, state-level public provision and Land Grant institutions go some way to baking in the civic function of universities. While they may not be as well-known as the big private names of the Ivy League, MIT, or Chicago etc., local institutions and place-based engagement are very much at the heart of the US higher education system.

One challenge faced by UK universities in meeting their civic function is a serious decline in mature and part-time students following tuition fee increases. Between 2010/11 and 2018/19 numbers have declined by 22% and 52%respectively. In the US, online provision has long been considered very much the poor relation of on-campus education. It has been found to widen inequalities, while not offering cost benefits.

Offering better quality and affordable distance learning is key in widening access and helping different demographics upskill or retrain post coronavirus. Limiting opportunities to younger learners who are able to physically access campuses is to neglect and lose out on a considerable talent pool.

Therefore, lower-cost, flexible online options are essential for universities to serve communities and society as a whole. Many mature or online students will need to balance degree study with other financial and time constraints. Economic recession will exacerbate this; universities will need to make a concerted push to remedy the negative trends.

A decisive shift online?

Of course, coronavirus has already seen much university education pushed online. This has yet to result in any changes to fee structures, even as a new academic year with a new intake begins. In both the US and the UK, universities have shown little appetite for reducing fees for courses shifted online.

The case is that universities will continue to incur the same overheads during this period. Many will have concerns over lost income from international students no longer willing to travel. Marketized systems like the US and UK are particularly vulnerable, despite additional funding of £280 million in the UK and $6 billion in the US.

There may be some truth in this. This will be scant comfort to students currently engaged with what may feel to them an expensive but limited experience.

Nonetheless, the shift to online provision is interesting. Indeed, this is one of the most substantial changes in the delivery of higher education since the introduction of the printing press. Except this time, it has been enforced: universities have traditionally been relatively slow in embracing online delivery, even in hybrid forms (flipped classrooms, for instance).

Now, with no choice in the matter, institutions have been forced to ‘pivot’ online. For many, this will have come as a nasty surprise. Behind the scenes, however, we have seen huge advances in the pedagogical approaches and technical capabilities of online delivery in recent years. In the US, we might note that we had already seen a steady increase in online delivery, with a third of students taking at least one online course.

Alongside popular tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Classroom, bespoke and generic ed tech solutions, supported by ed tech and learning support teams, have minimised disruptions to delivery. Many institutions certainly deserve credit for this difficult transition.

Many posit that this could change education permanently for the better. Some argue that it was long overdue. Indeed, there are wonderful possibilities: reducing teaching burden to allow a focus on one-on-one provision, flexibility, and of course long-distance collaboration. At some stage we might even see lowered costs…

It will not be enough to continue utilising tech that has been employed as a stopgap. Universities will be obliged to think about delivery in a long-term way if we are to take advantage of the full potential of online delivery.

Done right, however, research shows that online learning does not produce inferior outcomes. But to return to the notion of producing well-rounded human beings, we would also do well to remember that the social element of university attendance indisputably plays a key formative role.

Skills and future industries

We may see changes in delivery in the universities of the future, then.

We will also certainly see changes in areas of academic focus as the needs of society change. The heavy focus on STEM and FAME subjects we have seen in recent years may have been somewhat reductive in some respects. On the other hand, this is also a response to the needs of the employment market and subsequently student demand.

It seems that even coronavirus has not hugely affected demand in key sectors in the UK. We are still in need of programmers and software development professionals, nurses, and legal and accounting professionals. These are among the roles currently considered ‘hard to fill’.

It’s not just about technology and accounting, of course. We also need welfare and housing associate professionals and social workers. It’s those tech jobs, however, which really seem to capture the imagination. Indeed, these will be a large factor in determining the UK’s future competitiveness. Shortcomings are widely noted – one study found that 70% of UK tech companies found it difficult to find talent. Another that 0.6 million unfilled tech vacancies were costing the nation £63 billion a year.

This is not particular to the UK, of course. The WEF also identifies a growing digital skills gap. It states that 133 million new roles are set to come into existence before 2022 (or at least were, pre-coronavirus) as “a result of the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms”. Growth in demand will be particularly concentrated in data and AI; sales, marketing, and content; and cloud computing.

Unfortunately, we face a skills shortage: 750,000 jobs are set to remain unfilled in the European ICT sector alone. Shortages in tech skills similarly dominate the US news agenda (though it has also been suggested that this ‘gap’ is a ploy by tech companies to produce a steady stream of reliable labour).

Universities clearly must play a role in this skills revolution. Unfortunately, they have been found wanting in the UKand US alike. Shortcomings represent opportunities for improvement, however. Perhaps as the dust settles from 2020, we will see who in the higher education sector is most ready to address these issues.

Certainly, many institutions are deeply invested in some of the key technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Leading universities have well-established artificial intelligence departments, and we are increasingly seeing new blockchain centres emerge, for example. University of Oxford academics have even launched a ‘blockchain university’. We’ve come a long way from elitist schools for the clerical elite then…

As a final note, it is perhaps worth noting universities’ role in the greatest challenge of our times. When COVID has faded in the memory, we will still be faced with the climate emergency. Scientific work at universities is very much the beating heart of how we deal with this issue going forward. This will be complemented by social science work looking into the political and social aspects of climate change. And work in the arts to help us understand the relationship between the planet and the human condition.

If nothing else then, the role of universities will be nothing less than to quite literally save the world.