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In a move that shocked the world, Cambridge University has announced plans to move all its lectures online next year.

With the exception of “smaller teaching groups in person”, it means that the campus will essentially be shut for the foreseeable future.

The University of Manchester has acted similarly – deciding that lectures will be online-only for the Autumn term.

Most institutions moved their operations online as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated – but if this continues for long, the consequences will be bleak for them.

Indeed, one report estimates £2.472 billion lost across the sector and 30,000 redundancies.

This is based on the expectation that 232,000 fewer students will enrol in 2020/21 compared to 2018/2019.

It’s no wonder many want to drop out; it’s ridiculous expecting youngsters to pay £9,250 for a Zoom-based education.

Cambridge’s decision is all the more troublesome when students have such a low risk for Covid-19.

Yes, older tutors have to be protected – but when primary schools are returning and able to introduce sensible steps, so should all academic institutions.

Unfortunately the Government doesn’t have much say in Cambridge’s direction, as universities are allowed to set their own roadmap in regards to the pandemic.

What it does have control over, however, is using this time as an opportunity to improve the system, as Conservatives promised they would do in their manifesto.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that Covid-19 has been the impetus for a new direction.

But the fact that university numbers are about to go down is no bad thing – for years this has been what’s actually needed.

There are many problems with universities, but the main one is that demand for courses vastly outpaces demand for graduates.

It all started when Tony Blair decided that 50 per cent of school pupils should attend these institutions, convinced that this would take them to dizzying heights of success.

This vision never, ever materialised, though – even having a reverse effect.

The consequences of the Blair years were laid bare in front of MPs in 2017 when parliamentarians were given a 50-page report on millennials.

It showed that 40 per cent of 25-34-year-olds have degrees, but 47 per cent work in a non-graduate job; this is a terrible waste.

Of course, university isn’t just a means to a job – learning should be for learning’s sake, and it’s also a time for young adults to have fun and meet new friends.

The trouble is that when everyone goes, it starts to have a big, negative effect on the economy.

It can also lead to a drop in standards for students. Artificial grade inflation has been one byproduct from oversubscribed institutions, and degrees start to devalue if everyone’s got one.

What’s particularly plagued the system is the numbers of people doing “low-value” degrees, such as creative arts and psychology, which our columnist, Neil O’Brien has been particularly vocal about.

Last year, he co-authored a report for Onward demonstrating just how damaging these can be. That’s because graduates with low value degrees tend not to earn enough to ever pay back their loans.

A tenth earn less than £25,000 a decade after graduating (the threshold for them to start paying them back).

Speaking to ConHome, O’Brien added that growing fees hadn’t changed the incentive for high-return courses, saying “the earning status suggests that [students] should go off and do maths, the hard sciences, medicine, maybe law or economics because they have big returns. But actually people are piling into creative arts, which has the worst returns and lowest earnings.”

As of last year, it was shown that the loan repayment threshold for creative arts not met five years after graduation stands at 40 per cent.

Worryingly, around 45 per cent of the value of outstanding post-2012 student loans are not expected to be repaid – and who has to come to the rescue? 

You! The taxpayer… 

Last year Damian Hinds, the then Education Secretary, warned these low value degrees are costing millions – in the hope this would be a “wake up call” (NB. It wasn’t).

This is why the crisis should be an opportunity to rethink our universities.

It has forced us to confront some big questions.

For one, if these institutions can move online so readily – what’s the justification for physical lectures? 

Do students even need to be on campus at all – paying large sums for halls?

Furthermore, if they can lecture online, why should courses cost £9,250 – particularly when competition in the online education marketplace has been growing (Coursera being one example)?

This pandemic should also encourage us to think about whether it’s sustainable to rely on foreign students so much, who can be charged as much as £58,600 and now cannot get back to classes.

A survey suggests 49 per cent of students from China will not enrol if it’s all online

It’s very hard to understand the rationale for some of these prices.

Part of this I say from a personal perspective; I graduated with psychology in 2010, having received two hours of lectures a week in my third year. Hardly value for money.

Given the astronomical economic upheavals the UK has gone through since 2010, it has always seemed to me madness that we have not addressed the university issue sooner.

There is a real desire to rehaul the system, and invest properly in technical education, entrepreneurship – and other routes to employment.

You simply don’t have to be “academic” to be a success – and that narrative has to properly end.

One suspects part of the preoccupation with universities is because they are thought of as the engine of social mobility.

And of course they still offer many people amazing opportunities.

We have some of the best in the world and should be incredibly proud.

But if we want to show true respect to them, as well as young people, we need to fix these enormous structural problems.

The time is now for change. Ministers should seize it.

42 comments for: Universities have been in trouble for years. Ministers should seize the chance to reshape them.

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