The Pandemic in Higher Education Tests Our Social Values

The Pandemic in Higher Education Tests Our Social Values

There are striking differences between countries and cultures in the pandemic experience, in general and in higher education.

To appreciate this, let us consider the ideal higher education response – what happens in higher education when social values aligned to the ‘common good’ are uppermost. According to the UNESCO notion of education as a ‘global common good’, higher education should contribute to solidaristic social relations, including shared welfare, inclusion, tolerance, and mutual respect, while also contributing to universal individual rights and freedoms on the basis of equality. In a common good higher system, under conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, these protocols are followed:

  1. Government emphasises isolation, social distancing and mask-wearing as acts of social solidarity. People must protect not just themselves but the lives of others.
  2. Government announces that because the health and the lives of students and staff take absolute priority, all higher education remains solely online until it is fully safe to reopen all institutions for everyone.
  3. Government guarantees the financial sustainability of institutions for as long as necessary, just as it underpins sectors such as health or finance.
  4. Institutions develop and provide the best possible quality of online educational provision and administration, consistent with economic delivery.
  5. Because online higher education can effectively provide only part of the full product inherent in face to face education in common institutions – for example, online education provides cognitive learning, information and credentialing but not full sociability with other students, in-place student-teacher interaction, physical facilities, the full suite of extra-curricular activities and academically-nested work experience – then in countries that charge students fees, tuition cost is discounted.
  6. On reopening in a country or locality institutions, establish stronger public health protocols than existed prior to the pandemic, and probably modify the extent of travel by staff and students, especially travel across national borders.

It is too early to have tested protocols 5 and 6 but we do know where countries stand on protocols 1-4. Some have properly managed the health of students and sustainability of higher education, but not others.

The countries that have handled the overall pandemic best are those in East Asia, such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, in which each person learns from birth that we live in a society and our behaviour affects others. The toll has also been low in China outside Hubei province where the pandemic began. Not by coincidence, these countries have centrally managed the closing and opening of higher education and reopened solely on the basis of health advice, not financial or political factors. Institutions have reopened only when new cases in the community are at near zero.

In contrast, in the UK at the time of writing, almost every university was promising to reopen face to face in September and October despite the high death toll. The UK government, which sees higher education as a business market, will not provide guarantees of funding and institutional survival. If institutions say that they expect to be solely online early in the 2020-21 academic year, they risk a collapse of enrolment and the loss of both core funding and competitive position. Given this kind of thinking it is not surprising the high number of UK COVID-19 related deaths.


“Some countries have shown the pandemic can be handled in a socially responsible manner with good outcomes. Other countries have done badly. But the good news is that all countries can learn from each other, and policies can be changed.”



Simon Marginson is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford and Director of ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education. Previously, he was Professor of International Higher Education at UCL Institute of Education and Professor of Higher Education in CSHE at the University of Melbourne. He is Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education, the principal world journal in higher education studies, and a member of 15 other journal boards. Marginson is one of the world’s most highly cited scholars in higher education studies and international and comparative education.

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