By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli
“Like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing the final picture”—that’s how one member of our governing body described to me the challenge of responding to Covid-19.
It certainly feels that way. Around the world, policymakers are grappling with a multidimensional crisis with far-reaching consequences not just for public health but for our economies and wider society. No industry, no business, no individual can escape the disruption—and for many, the impact of the crisis threatens to be profound.
Higher education is no exception. In its latest forecast, the Office for Budget Responsibility highlighted that education faced the largest output loss during the coronavirus crisis. Modelling from Universities UK puts the financial hit this year alone at £790 million, largely due to forsaken accommodation fees, lost conference income and the costs associated with moving teaching and assessment online.
This, however, pales in comparison with the larger risk of a steep decline in international student numbers. In recent years, UK universities have benefited enormously from an influx of talent from around the world and the income that has come with it. But we know that in light of the crisis, prospective students are rapidly reassessing their plans.
A recent QS survey found that the study plans of 57 per cent of respondents had been affected by the virus, with a further 29 per cent weighing up their options. The consequences of such a collapse in numbers would be severe. Across higher education, UUK puts the total exposure at £6.9 billion.
The value of research
Of course, we must recognise that our position is unusual. Whereas some industries face going to the wall tomorrow, for universities the real crunch will arrive in a few months’ time. Nevertheless, ministers must recognise that the crunch is coming and that for some universities the threat is existential.
Ironically, these sobering statistics come at precisely the moment when the value of our world-leading research base couldn’t be any clearer. Across the country, universities are playing a vital role in supporting the national effort to combat the virus.