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Universities fear long-term damage as impact of Covid-19 becomes clear

Image: Ecole polytechnique [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Concern over lasting effects on mobility and funding bubbling as institutions across Europe adapt

With Covid-19 rampant in Europe, universities are adjusting to the new normal of working remotely but already they are looking ahead at potentially long-lasting damage to academic budgets and mobility.

“In terms of public funding, we might need to be prepared for something that will hit several systems very, very strongly,” Thomas Estermann, director for governance and public policy at the European University Association, told Research Europe.

“I expect that in the long term, public funding for universities will be quite under stress,” he said—potentially for “years to come”.

As Research Europe went to press, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control was reporting 386,000 Covid-19 cases in the EU and EEA area, and 26,000 deaths.

The financial impact is likely to vary by country, and student mix will play a major role. Individual organisations will also differ in their ability to handle the change. The hardest blows may be felt by universities in countries such as the UK and Ireland, where funding models lean more heavily on tuition fees and especially income from international students, whose movements have now been disrupted or made impossible by the pandemic.

Universities are “very afraid that this crisis will have a long-term impact on mobility”, with a large drop in staff and students coming from and going abroad, said Ludovic Thilly, chair of the Coimbra Group of long-established, multi-disciplinary universities.

Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of the association of research funders and performers Science Europe, said this calendar year has been “completely upset” by the disease, which has shut down Italy, Spain, the UK and other nations across the continent.

The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on 28 March that the Commission would alter its proposal for the EU’s 2021-27 budget to “address the fallout” of Covid-19. Senior figures from academia have already called on the Commission to prioritise R&D in these changes.

“Research and innovation should be an absolute top priority, as the past few weeks have proven,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (Leru).

Views are mixed on the Commission’s handling of the crisis so far. Thilly said it has “shown good reactivity” in finding extra funding for R&D on potential cures and other responses, and in postponing funding deadlines. 

But Science Europe wants more, and has asked the Commission to implement a delay of reporting periods on all EU-funded research projects, instead of considering extensions on a “case-by-case basis”. Large funders such as UK Research and Innovation, the UK’s main public funder, have been “extremely flexible and accommodating” in such moves, said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. But he warned that PhD students entering the job market are in for a tough year, with a weak economy potentially translating to fewer academic positions.

There has also been praise for the way institutions have responded to this unprecedented threat to their functioning.

Universities themselves have shown “100 per cent commitment” to their students, according to Palmowski, providing the best education available under the circumstances and adopting a flexible approach to coursework. “Universities can—and will, I’m sure—extend their deadlines to submission, but the key question still is whether the funding will be extended,” he said. 

Thilly also said universities are doing their utmost to accommodate staff and students, describing their response as “wonderful”. The situation has pushed institutions to adopt “new, creative approaches” to support students and staff, he said. 

“In the first days when we heard we were all switching activities to online, we understood that this was going to be the first [hit] of a really large immediate impact.”

Leru policy officer Bart Valkenaers agreed that universities had performed well: “This asked for huge efforts from different support services.”

But even with universities and governments stepping in to ease the blow, most expect academia to be hit hard by the global tumult when the pandemic recedes.  

This article also appeared in Research Europe and a version also appeared in Research Fortnight