What will ‘going to University’ mean if you can’t ‘go’ to University ?

Since writing my last post four years ago, I have not given a thought to restarting this blog, let alone in circumstances like these.

My reason for posting today is that when I have engaged lately with family, friends or colleagues about the current pandemic, I have realized how confused everyone is, whereas the mechanism is actually quite simple when you know the background.

I am not interested in theories, socio-political science-fiction or scenario-based speculation. Nor do I pretend to have any solution. I just want to recap a few basic facts that explain the situation we are in. Some of my friends have asked me my statistician’s point of view, but to be honest the answer would stretch any listener’s patience, although no numbers or advanced stats are involved. So here it is, for those who are interested.

Before starting, let me also say that there is no contradiction between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’. Apologies for going against the current media-induced emotional state, but you can be genuinely compassionate about the hardships many people experience at the moment and still keep your head about what’s going on.

The first point is that there is nothing new in this pandemic from an epidemiological standpoint. Back in 1957, between 2 and 3 million people died of the flu, including several hundred thousands in Europe. There was a lesser but nevertheless mass epidemic 10 years later, followed by other ones in the 90s and 10 years ago. By nature, the flu virus mutates. It has mutated before and will mutate again. Therefore, despite what the mass media coverage would have us believe and the restrictive measures we all have to comply with, this outbreak is neither exceptional nor the worst in living memory.

The second point, of which I know from working on epidemiological modelling and policies in the past, is also the most important: the only strategy that works when it comes to fighting against an epidemic is identifying and tracing cases, e.g. testing. That is a constant, whether you are talking about flu, TB, malaria or aids. It has been known for a long time. Would early mass-testing have helped avoiding mass confinement and economical destruction in the UK, France, Italy, Spain, etc. ? The answer is yes, because it would have enabled millions of healthy people to return to their work, as well as helping the more vulnerable. It would have also prevented shutting down schools and shattering young people’s lives. But mass-testing requires both preparation and quick decision processes on a national scale. It is no coincidence that the two countries which have successfully implemented this strategy (South Korea, Germany) are among the most organised democracies in the world. Three weeks ago, when I told friends that most Western governments were doing exactly the opposite of what they should have done, they thought I was a loony. Today, this view seems more palatable, for some reason.

The third point is that no health system can safely cope with an outbreak like this, whether it’s the NHS or any other health system. If it could, then it would mean that it is oversized in normal times, which it clearly isn’t, so that’s a no-brainer.

The fourth point is another no-brainer: social distancing and restrictive measures on people’s movement reduce (or slow down) the propagation of the virus and help health systems to cope. No need to be a great mathematician to understand that. So, when governments claim that they are making science-based decisions, they are correct in that sense. It’s also a spin, as it would be more accurate to say that these measures are a common-sense unavoidable last resort given that they first ignored (or were unprepared for) the one sensible strategy, which was mass-testing.

From there on, it’s just a ‘more or less’ story: health systems will cope more or less well, there will be more or less casualties, it will take more or less time, etc. In that intrinsically relative context, the British media’s blame game of putting pressure on the UK government by comparing their measures with France’s or Italy’s is highly dubious, for one simple reason: every time you cross a frontier, be it national or regional (London versus less populated areas in England, for example), three things change: scale (population size), density and culture. This makes it impossible to make actionable comparisons of ‘performance’ across countries. In their zeal, the UK media tend to forget this is a global pandemic, not Masterchef.

My last point is about confinement. As I said before, it is a necessary short-term measure given the absence of mass-testing (let’s keep our head in the way we comply, though: whether you go out and exercise for 20 minutes or 2 hours makes no difference to the propagation, it’s the social distancing that counts!). But the longer-term immunological and wider health-related consequences of mass confinement are very much uncharted territory. To the best of my knowledge, confinement hasn’t been used on a large scale since the cholera epidemics of the 18th century, which were quite specific. This time, the final equation will be complex and, to say the least, highly interdependent and multi-dimensional. I would be very wary of anyone who claims to know the bottom line. Even looking at the practical side only (and that’s just one aspect of it), the way out of this situation will depend on how quickly and effectively mass testing will be implemented in each country (and not only in the UK, as we are all in this together).

The question of the ‘way-out’ is, of course, a critical point for universities right now (https://wonkhe.com/blogs/the-clock-is-ticking-on-a-decision-about-september-entry/).

Since the beginning of the crisis, universities have mostly cascaded government decisions. But there are now major business model questions ahead: what will it mean to ‘go to University’ when you cannot actually ‘go’ there ? Will prospective students still adhere to the offline togetherness of student life on campus ? Or will they switch to providers that already sell online degrees and have huge fast-growth potential ?

Should we try and adapt in the (wishful?) hope that no major mutation will happen in the way HE is delivered round the globe ? Or should we totally re-think what we can offer in this new world ? In other words, should we just seek to adapt our provision within the same business model ? Or accept the possibility that the virus might have damaged the business model so badly that it will soon be obsolete ?

For a start, let’s rephrase those questions from the general to the quantitative (‘how many students will etc.’ rather than ‘students will…’). Campus life and offline academia will still be attractive for a number of students, but the problem is: how many are we going to lose over the next few months and years as a result of this crisis ? Any decrease in student numbers would be regarded as problematic in normal times, but now we are looking at change on a totally different scale. As for the validity of such metrics as continuation, value-added, outcomes, etc. in next year’s league tables: excuse my French…

I do not have the answers to these questions more than anyone else, but there’s one thing I know: it’s student experience that will make the difference, and student experience is NOW, not in the distant future. I hear that some universities are already restricting next term’s provision (even online) or cancelling exams altogether: is that the right approach ? By doing so, aren’t they (to use an expression from my native culture) buying matches for their own cremation?

Online degree providers are rubbing their hands at some universities’ dithering process-driven approach over next term’s exams and assessments – they’ve done this online successfully for years.

The core problem here is that universities are not always very good at making decisions which are both student-driven and data-informed. The data is there, but it must be looked at differently, otherwise decisions could miss the main point, which is that this crisis has put our current (and prospective) students in different situations and we owe them ALL a solution that matches their aspirations.

This is not the time to be paralyzed by the search of a ‘one size fits all’ solution. If we do not segment our solutions (as all good businesses do) to adapt to these situations, this will be just another let-down.