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Near-term impact of pandemic on universities ‘still uncertain’

Covid-19 could affect finances, enrolment and learning in unpredictable ways, says university group

It is still too soon for universities to be certain of even the near-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on their operations and finances, the European University Association has warned.

“Research on the social and economic effects of the pandemic is ongoing,” EUA Higher Education Policy Unit director Michael Gaebel said in a briefing published on 10 September. “Some institutions hope for a return to ‘normal’ in a few months, others assume this may take a year or longer, and maybe never come.”

Gaebel cited an EUA survey that found 95 per cent of responding higher education institutions switched to distance learning at an institutional level following the onset of the pandemic, while four per cent provided distance learning at a faculty level.

“This sudden and disruptive shift to remote education varied by size, governance models, and disciplinary differences,” he said. “Large comprehensive institutions usually found it more challenging to develop an institutional approach.”

European universities have begun their first semester of the 2020-21 academic year, but many questions remain about the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, Gaebel said.

These questions include how public funds will be allocated, how many international students will enrol at European institutions, whether and in what form distance learning will continue, and how joint research and open access might be affected.

But Gaebel found reason for optimism, saying: “While the university model is often depicted as rather static, adverse to change, and impossible to govern, due to its collegial model, in the current crisis it has been rather proficient and demonstrated resilience and adaptability that exceeded expectations.”