Few institutions have the longevity and deep roots of universities.
Yet even those that have been around long enough to survive plagues, fires and revolutions are finding that the coronavirus is stretching their resilience and endurance to the limit.
As international students scramble home to continue classes online, governments in the English-speaking countries dominant in the global education industry are waking up to the existential threat their disappearance poses to universities young and old.
Over the last decade, the number of international students worldwide has more than doubled to 5 million. Before the coronavirus struck, this trend was set to continue unabated, with some expecting over 8 million overseas students by 2025.
No one today has visibility or confidence in predictions over that sort of timeframe.
What is certain, however, is that they are unlikely to return to physical campuses in North America, the UK and Australia in anything like the same numbers for the start of the new academic year this September.
Governments and university leaders are sensibly preparing for a drop in international students of potentially 50-75 per cent – or worse – that represents a significant reversal for one of the great boom businesses of the globalised economy.
This will be a lesson for politicians who have persistently failed to speak up for international students when they’ve found themselves tangled up in wider debates about immigration.
They are now waking up to the critical role overseas students have quietly been playing in underpinning the financial foundations of institutions central to the performance of all knowledge economies.
The loss of revenues will force governments to choose between costly bailouts and disorderly failures that push tens of thousands of students out of classrooms, onto the streets, and into a labour market already in turmoil.
In the UK, where some 460,000 international students represent 20 per cent of library ticket-holders, massively cross-subsidise research in Russell Group institutions and contribute £20 billion to the country’s annual services exports, these challenges are particularly acute.
The reputational consequences for any country whose institutions mishandle their student populations in this time of crisis will be long-lasting.
The Office for Students will need to design and put in place a multi-billion pound stabilisation fund to prevent the collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities.
Access to this fund should be subject to strict non-negotiable conditions, including the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.
If there is a scramble this September to backfill empty places from a shrinking pool of domestic 18-year-olds, as seems likely, there will inevitably be winners and losers.
If groups of financially robust institutions are minded to show self-restraint and want to agree voluntarily to limit their recruitment of domestic student numbers to their 2019 levels plus, say, 5 to 10 per cent, that should be their decision.
The OfS should, however, firmly resist lobbying from weaker institutions for the reintroduction of government-mandated sector-wide student number controls.
It is not clear that any move to reimpose institution-by-institution student number controls for this purpose would work in practice, make much difference to the financial crisis or be consistent with the market regulator’s statutory duties to promote value for money.
What is clear, though, is that a return to centralised command-and-control would create perverse incentives, limiting the ability of successful institutions to expand at a reasonable rate at the expense of those offering poorer quality and outcomes.
Artificially constraining supply at excellent providers and corralling students into universities further down the reputational, quality and outcomes pecking order – to which they haven’t applied and don’t want to go – hardly seems sensible.
It is certainly not in the student interest.
Critically, it would also be a fundamental setback to a powerful driver of social mobility. For, once imposed, number controls would stay for good, satisfying the desire of HE-sceptics to clamp down on the expansion of the sector.
The removal of the “cap on aspiration”, announced in 2013 and implemented over the following three years, was a flagship Conservative education policy that modernisers rightly predicted would enable more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access a university education.
Young people from such backgrounds are more than 50 per cent more likely today to attend the most selective institutions than they were a decade ago.
If sector-wide government-mandated student number controls return, one of the lasting casualties of the coronavirus will be the role higher education plays in levelling up opportunity across the UK.
That would be an entirely self-inflicted injury.
For all the legitimate and justified anxieties over the coming academic year, pessimism about the medium-term future for international education is overblown.
Students and scholars leaving their homes in search of education and knowledge is hardly a new phenomenon. It will resume.
A QS survey of 11,000 prospective international students found that 85 per cent were still open to applying – although a significant proportion of these intended to defer entry for a year.
The push factors behind international education remain strong. In key developing countries, a shortage of places at prestigious domestic institutions that match social aspirations and academic needs will remain acute for the foreseeable future.
Driven by growth in middle classes in developing countries in Asia and Africa, the demand for higher education is set to increase from 160 million students in 2015 to over 414 million by 2030, according to UNESCO. To meet that surge, the world would have to build four universities that serve 80,000 students every week, every year.
The two largest nations in the world, China and India, which account for a quarter of overseas students, cannot accommodate student demand for higher education within their borders. They are far from unique.
In Bangladesh, a country with a young population of 170 million, and Sri Lanka, there are an estimated five students competing for every available university place, according to the British Council.
In the longer term, the disruption from the coronavirus could accelerate a new phase of growth for international education.
Traditionally, it has been a privilege reserved for those who either have money, or the know-how to secure financial aid. In future, its benefits will be likely to reach much wider pool of talent.
This will come about through an acceleration of two trends.
First, future flows of students will be more multi-directional. The flow of talent is today still surprisingly one-way: clever young people from the developing world take their skills and talents to richer countries in the developed world.
Disruption to travel and incomes from the corona crisis will boost the relative appeal of opportunities for intra-regional study. Many Asian students interested in overseas study are increasingly contemplating safe and more affordable study options closer to home, in countries such as Malaysia.
As developing countries increasingly seek to welcome growing numbers of overseas students themselves and improve their own league table performance, international education will cease to be considered in terms of a mainly western and English-speaking archetype.
Second, the crisis will accelerate take-up of online, distance-learning and blended courses (combining online educational materials and classroom interaction with traditional place-based teaching methods). These will be of interest to a broad swathe of mid-income families unable to afford (or unconvinced by the return on investment from) traditional multi-year programmes of overseas study.
Notwithstanding heroic efforts by universities to move to a virtual teaching environment, the crisis has exposed the extent to which UK universities have been lagging the best around the world in preparing themselves for the new growth opportunities in online, distance-learning and blended courses.
The most far-sighted institutions are already in a position to turn this crisis into an opportunity. Others are clearly scrambling to provide anything resembling a coherent online offering. They will pay a steep price in student satisfaction.
Demand for the traditional multi-year programmes of overseas study will return in time for the groups who’ve always accessed it. Online provision will not replace face-to-face education in the long term for students wanting the academic kudos and status benefits from full-on immersive experiences in other countries.
But the most exciting growth in international education will come from institutions using technology to scale up access for talented students from poor and middle-income backgrounds for whom it has previously been out of reach.
An international education market that is more accessible, less elitist and less carbon-intensive will be at least one good thing to come out of the corona crunch.
Jo Johnson is Chairman of Tes Global and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London.