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What Is The Future of Higher Education?

The pandemic could change the prospects of access to higher education for the better


Higher education refers to all post-secondary education, including public and private universities, colleges, technical training institutes, and vocational schools. According to World Bank data, over 200 million students worldwide are enrolled in higher education, twice the number twenty years ago.

Among other institutions, the European Commission has stated that higher education plays a crucial role in individual and societal development and in “providing the highly skilled human capital and the engaged citizens that society needs to create jobs, economic growth, and prosperity”. People believe that getting a degree from a leading university still remains one of the surest routes to social mobility.

Against this background, higher education institutions have started to come under significant pressure, particularly in Europe and North America. Many employers lament that universities do not teach crucial skills such as people management, emotional intelligence, and communication. The relative value of attaining a Bachelor’s degree has diminished especially in those countries where a significant segment of young people holds one. Higher job insecurity means a university degree no longer guarantees a well-paid job, or even a job at all.

Young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, for whom higher education could make the difference, are much less likely to apply to or even win a place at the most selective institutions than their peers. There are many factors that contribute to this, including school attainment, advice and guidance, the admissions system, and concerns about the cost of universities. Another barrier is geography. Depending on where one was born, access to the best universities can be severely limited without travelling significant distances.

Current pandemic-led restrictions are testing the resilience of academic institutions. But could this be for the better in the long run?

Shifting to new models

Over the past months, academic institutions all around the world have been forced to cancel classes and rapidly switch to online learning. The shift to digital learning comes with significant challenges, such as access to adequate technical infrastructure, re-thinking teaching modules as to function in an online setting, and enabling both students and teachers to rapidly familiarize with these new modalities. The pandemic has exposed the need for more training of educators in digital technology.

Online classes demand an efficient internet service, a peaceful space, and one device dedicated to each student in a family. In June this year, the Indian Express reported that less than 15% of rural Indian households have Internet, and that the poorest households cannot afford a smartphone nor a computer. But even if we look at a bigger picture, today only 60% of the world is online.

Restrictions to mobility are likely to have profound repercussions on the funding model of some higher education institutions where international students pay higher tuition fees than domestic ones. Countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States that rely heavily on international students paying grossly differentiated fees are likely to suffer the greatest losses — especially because the crisis has exposed the very value proposition of universities. With distance classes now becoming the rule rather than the exception, expensive universities are likely to struggle to justify their exorbitant fees. In the US, the cost of higher education fees has gone up at a pace that is second only to the increase in the cost of healthcare. An OECD report published in June 2020 showed that in 13 selected countries and territories, expenditure per student doubled in higher education after allowing for inflation between 1995 and 2015.

Students go to universities to meet great people and professors and to experience the social life on campus. They are unlikely to commit large amounts of time and money if these benefits are no longer available. The perception of online learning may be that it is of lower quality than in-person education, but in-person education was already perceived as too expensive. According to a World Economic Forum/Ipsos survey run across 29 countries, just over half of respondents (53%) agree that in-person higher education is worth its cost, compared to just over a third (36%) who disagree.

“Luxury brands” rather than public servants

Analysts of the higher education industry have already sentenced the end of the Golden Age of universities. Even before the pandemic, experts had highlighted the need for a profound reform of the system. For instance, HBR contributors Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz wrote about how universities reinforce inequalities rather than reduce it, and the need to entirely rethink the higher education system. In his book “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us”, New York Times Magazine journalist Paul Tough concludes that “Elite college campuses are almost entirely populated by the students who benefit the least from the education they receive there: the ones who were already wealthy when they arrived on campus.”

Some academic institutions argue that offering online courses does not come more cheaply than traditional teaching. Investments in technology are expensive, and so are high-tenure professors and qualified personnel. Ultimately, the cost of higher education will be dictated by how many students (and their families) are willing to pay those costs. Some experts predict the possibility that colleges will adopt a “two-tiered system”, in which they offer a lower-cost online option as well as a traditional, more expensive on-campus option.

But pressure on top institutions to welcome students from lower socio-economic conditions is only likely to rise. A famous 2017 study led by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent (with an income of more than $630,000 a year) were 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school compared to students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. Talking to CBS News Business Analyst Jill Schlesinger, New York University Stern School of Business Marketing Professor Scott Galloway described the attitudes of top colleges in the US as “luxury brands” rather than “public servants”.

At the same time, because top academic institutions have the resources to rapidly adopt high-quality e-learning platforms, online courses coming from these institutions are already easily available and aggressively marketed. Surprisingly, many of them are available for free, like these offered by Harvard University. While full-fledged degrees may not yet be offered entirely online (but they will if the pandemic continues), attaining an Oxbridge or Yale certificate is currently much, much easier than in the past.

It’s not all doom and gloom

As reported by Euractiv, Roger Blamire, a senior adviser at the European Schoolnet, a network of 34 Education ministries in Europe, stated that the COVID-19 crisis has been “a wake-up call” for the organization of the education system and has shown what can be done with technology.

Without the crisis, how many academic institutions would still not make use of online tools at all, and how much longer would we have waited to see technology integrated into education? Given the incredibly slow pace of change in academic institutions, with centuries-old, outdated teaching methods and hard-to-die institutional habits, can this forced transformation bring universities a little closer to this century and further, to the digital mindset of their students?

Another positive aspect we have seen is a significant increase in online learning by adults. Seasoned professionals now have the opportunity to improve their language skills, expand their professional qualifications, and even pursue their dreams of career changes by using a safe online environment. But they are also becoming acquainted with video-conferencing, online searches, and many other available digital tools. Who hasn’t been impressed by the technological upgrade some of our older acquaintances have experienced over the past few months? I am convinced that we will see great benefits from this ‘forced technological education’ for people’s ability to stay competitive in the future labor market.

In conclusion, the COVID-19 outbreak is causing a significant impact on the higher education system worldwide. The closure of campuses has rapidly forced institutions to adopt online learning systems. These systems present challenges for both students and educators but is accelerating the process of integrating modern technology into our education systems, equating to a massive collective upgrading of our institutional and individual skills.

While the digital divide is an issue that needs to be addressed, this transformation could be the single, most significant enabler of more accessible and affordable education for many students. If distance classes remain, top institutions are likely to offer full degrees online, making it easier for those students who could not afford to move to expensive cities to enrol in high-quality programs. As for other strategic sectors of our societies, the pace of innovations is unlikely to be fast unless external factors like COVID-19 leave no other choice.

Ultimately, finding new ways of learning is a way of learning in itself.

Post Scriptum: I recently enrolled in a 8-weeks online course by Harvard. With a bit of work and luck, I’ll be able to gain a Harvard diploma, but it will also come at no cost for me, other than for the 169 USD required if I want to get a (non-mandatory) official certificate — that is, incidentally, what I paid last week to get tested for COVID-19 in Switzerland.

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Germana Barba

Political scientist, public affairs expert, author. Advocating for positive change. Former corporate executive. Meet me at