The Impact of Coronavirus on Higher Education

4 min read

Elise Hodge

Universities and college campuses are places where students live and study in close proximity to each other. They are also buzzing cultural hubs where students are brought together from nations around the world. Recently, the foundations of this unique ecosystem have been impacted significantly by the rapid spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, creating uncertainty regarding the implications for higher education.


Over the last weeks, education officials have been forced to cancel classes and close the doors to campuses across the world in response to the growing coronavirus outbreak. In addition, US institutions have switched classes to online learning, cancelled spring break trips and students studying abroad in China, Italy and South Korea have been encouraged to return home to complete their studies.

While class closures, dips in enrollment at the beginning of a new semester and cancellations may be temporary, it’s hard to foresee whether the novel coronavirus will result in long-term disruption to the higher education system.

Understanding the economic impact

One of the biggest concerns for the sector at large is the percentage of international students that make up the domestic higher education markets. In the US alone, Chinese students make up 33.7 per cent of the foreign student population, while Indian students comprise of 18.4 per cent.

While travel restrictions to and from China have been helpful in slowing down the spread of the disease, they have also left international students stranded. According to a COVID-10 Survey by the Institute of International Education (IIE), 830 Chinese students have been unable to return to the US to continue their studies. While this may be a small percentage of the overall international student population, the question remains: How long will this last? If the restrictions remain in place, the US higher education system could bear the brunt of an economic downturn. So, how should universities and colleges around the world adjust their learning styles to retain program enrollment and provide accessibility to students?

Maximise online learning

The most effective tool in keeping student retention and maintaining access to learning has been online courses. Universities across the US, in particular, have adjusted their programs in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

Stanford University has called off the remaining two weeks of in-class lectures, urging its professors to move any remaining lessons online. The University of Washington announced a ban on on-campus classes until after spring break, after a member of staff was diagnosed with coronavirus last week. Other universities, including New York’s Hofstra University, New Jersey’s Princeton University and Seattle University are making starting to make the move to virtual classes.

Develop robust systems

While the majority of colleges and universities around the world integrate some form of online education into their coursework, moving all programs online may prove challenging. While some universities may already have strong online systems, smaller universities may struggle under the weight of the demand. University course creators should work closely with their IT departments to ensure their programs are able to be supported online.

One such university that is currently undertaking these measures is the University of Southern California, which is testing its online platforms to ensure its technology can handle its 7,000 plus lectures.

Educate students on best practices

With online learning the way to go, universities should also ensure students and staff are protected while on campus.

While COVID-19 is a high risk for those over 60, traditional-aged university students face relatively low risks from the disease. However in recent weeks, we have seen just how quickly the novel coronavirus can spread in areas with a high concentration of people - and university campuses are no exception.

Administrators should undertake simple measures to prevent the spread of the disease on their campuses. This should include instructing students on the appropriate protocols for hand washing, covering sneezes and coughs with their elbows, and self isolating if they are experiencing flu or cold-like symptoms.

Educators should also be aware of students who have travelled extensively during the spring break, and remind those who have been abroad in heavily affected places to be mindful about returning to campus.

Gather information and apply learnings

Universities and colleges yet to implement changes to campuses in response to the novel coronavirus should take cues from others who have already taken action. They should analyse the steps already taken by other educators to understand what has worked, what hasn’t worked and how to tackle the challenges they may face. With the spread of the disease expected to worsen before it gets better, administrators should take quick action to safeguard their campuses and students in preparation for potential closures.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The higher education sector has withstood turbulent economic times in the past, and it will withstand them again. In a digital age, universities and colleges are better placed today more than ever to provide students with easy access to continue their studies online.


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