While top tier universities like Oxford or Cambridge are unlikely to have a problem filling spaces – although even they will probably deplete their waiting lists more than ever before – some smaller and less prestigious names face a real risk of collapse without radical change.
A new partition
One likely consequence will be the introduction of much more remote learning – and potentially the creation of a two-tiered system, where students pay less to enrol in an online degree course or more for an old-fashioned campus experience.
Hybrid courses are also possible – where students might get a flavour of campus life for a few weeks per year but otherwise stay at home.
Across the UK, universities are drawing up different plans for how they can continue operating for the year from September.
Cambridge University has already said all lectures will be held online for the entire year. Manchester, Reading and Queen’s Belfast say they will have online lectures for the autumn term. Aberdeen is delaying the start of the academic year while Durham has discussed a move to teach entirely online.
In truth, these statements are not worth very much. In large part, they are aimed at shoring up confidence among students so they accept their places and start paying their fees.
Nobody really knows what will happen in September. Too little is known about the progress of the virus to say with certainty what may or may not be possible.
Greater educational egalitarianism
Whilst traditionalists will dislike it, there are big potential benefits from a shift to more distance learning, which has the potential to democratise and open up higher education to far larger numbers of people.
It seems strange in many ways that the internet has had only a limited impact until now on the way universities operate, despite having transformed other parts of the global economy beyond recognition.
If UK universities – perhaps with the help of Big Tech – can grasp the opportunity to become leaders in the effective delivery of online education, then a real economic opportunity also exists for them to benefit from this crisis.
There are risks of course too. Will the rising influence of Big Tech on higher education have an unhealthy influence on its priorities? Will some of the best ideas, expertise and research from UK colleges be cherry-picked and commercialised by Silicon Valley?
These are issues that must be carefully considered but big changes are coming – and UK universities should be ready.