Quo Vadis, Universities?

Quo Vadis, Universities?

“Ev’ry time I see your face, it reminds me of the places we used to go.
But all I got is a photograph, and I realize you’re not coming back anymore.”

These are the opening lines of a song called “Photograph” by Ringo Starr (formerly of The Beatles).

What do these lyrics have to do with spelling out my vision of the post-COVID higher education landscape? Let’s reflect on what COVID-19 has wrought upon universities:

  • Digitalization and online delivery of courses has been forced upon a system is notoriously resistant to change. Universities are profoundly conservative institutions that occasionally have radical ideas.
  • The imperatives of physical distancing (during stressful times, social connectivity is what we need, not “social distancing”), testing and contact tracing have led to empty campuses, radically transforming student experience, and complicating the building of lasting bonds. Will students fill campuses again? “Photograph”, anyone?
  • Research, especially laboratory-based research has skidded to a sudden standstill, impacting the wider scientific, industrial, and even national security environment.
  • The sudden arrest of cross-border travel has impacted deeply on international student mobility, endangering open exchange of young talented minds.
  • Online course offerings from dedicated online providers have become more credible alternatives to traditional classroom-based instruction.
  • Universities that have grown dependent on revenues from international students, and championed the advantages of face-to-face student engagement to justify high tuition fees, are suffering.
  • And it may, just may, have rekindled more trust in science as the implications of an anti-science stance towards COVID-19 has proven to be rather devastating.

Many more COVID-19 related effects will emerge over time; after all we are less than a year into the current public health cum economic crisis. While much has been learned about COVID-19, much remains a mystery. Post-COVID will not simply be a return to the world at the start of 2020. The above seven effects will serve as good signposts for the directions higher education might take.


“The vocation of universi-ties to not just focus on skills development, but to educate and nurture cit-izen in a holistic way will remain – otherwise they will fade into photographs themselves.”


So how do I imagine universities will evolve in the future:

  • We see a further bifurcation between universities with top reputation in research and innovation, and less reputed universities. Elite universities hog both talent and financial resources. They are, however, also the ones that lose out the most, should cross-border flows of talent be restricted.
  • Top research universities navigate the sheer impossible – closely collaborate with government while keeping an arms-length relationship, develop ever closer symbiotic partnerships with industry, and foster strong support by the citizenry, provided they adhere to strong values of academic freedom and independent thought (admittedly a big if), and reflect on their value proposition for society.
  • Universities balance between fundamental research – the quest for new knowledge in science, and applied research that promotes the economic well-being of communities and countries.
  • To survive, universities form international alliances where students are anchored at their home institution while attending courses offered by partners, receive degrees from multiple universities, and participate in research led by professors from alliance institutions. Distance hardly matters.
  • Universities that primarily prepare graduates for the job market introduce “stackable” degrees aggregating certificate-courses, internships, and core subject matter courses. Skills development dominates in order to respond to labor market demands. Faculty are facilitators on the students’ learning journey.
  • Universities continue to foster economic mobility and development of a stabilizing middle class, yet access and financial affordability constitute big issues.
  • Combining face-to-face and online learning, universities serve as locus for civic debate and intellectual exploration, setting themselves apart from pure online providers.



A Japanese Citizen, Shigeo Katsu is the founding President of 10-year old Nazarbayev University. He also serves as Chairman of two Boards, one a secondary school system (an NU sister organization), and another, an NU-affiliated financial services company. Prior to coming to Kazakhstan, he worked for over thirty years at the World Bank with assignments in Africa, East Asia (China), and Europe and Central Asia (retired in 2009 as Regional Vice President). He continues to be active in international development issues.

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