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The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Shocks and recovery in higher education: lessons from history

In a short period of time, COVID-19 has rocked the global higher education sector to its very marrow. Campuses have been shuttered, global student mobility reduced to nought and incomes devastated. Nothing of its like has been experienced by universities before, and there is no skirting the fact that institutions will continue to feel the ramifications for years to come.

Yet, it is also important to remember that this is not the first major crisis that the sector has experienced and recovered from. World wars, crippling natural disasters and deep recessions have elicited both short-term measures and long-term changes in attitudes, organisation, policies and practice, many for the better.

At this chaotic time, taking pause to reflect upon what was learnt from these past shocks may yield some valuable lessons.

While the present crisis may seem far removed from the bloodshed of World War I, the latter too had an immediate impact upon campus life as it then was. As John Taylor has explored in his book, The Impact of the First World War on British Universities, student numbers in the UK plummeted as young men went to the Front.

Enrolment at the University of Leeds fell by 35 per cent between 1913/14 and 1916/17. Tuition fees, upon which higher education institutions were dependent as their largest revenue source, went in the same direction. Yet, the war also became an opportunity for universities.

Hitherto regarded as somewhat abstract institutions concerned little with practical research, the conflict brought about an urgency in research for military, medicine and health applications that recast the role of academia within society. Meanwhile, the influx of female students and, in the post-war period, ex-servicemen schemes broadened the demographic of the typical student, permanently reshaping access to higher levels of education.

New departments were formed – modern languages, chemical physics, aeronautics – and new courses created – military geology, military law – that bore real relevance to the conflict at hand and the modern world. New degree formats were pioneered for the war years, such as the sandwich course, to build links with business, and shortened courses.

World War II prompted kindred responses. Scotland conferred a war degree, awarded after two years of study plus military service. The University of Maryland contracted degrees to be completed in as little as two years rather than the usual four, reducing summer vacations to three weeks.

Through both conflicts, universities displayed a fast-moving and innovative pragmatism that allowed them to become far more relevant than ever before.

Similar themes have been at work in the wake of natural disasters or financial crises. Just as the COVID-19 situation is doing, the GFC highlighted the instability of institutional funding models and the need to diversify income streams. The recession engendered heightened consumer demand for convenience, flexibility and value, which was reflected in Coventry University’s foundation of a spin off in 2011, CU Coventry, offering ‘no frills’ education for around half the price of average degrees.

We are again in a position where universities will need to react to help mitigate the funding reductions that will inevitably be felt in the coming years.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tulane University hastily overhauled its curriculum to introduce mandatory community service learning, directly applicable to the recovery of New Orleans. Tulane’s president, Scott Cowen, reasoned that the university’s survival went hand-in-hand with the city’s renewal, but the new civic focus also resonated with prospective students, who applied to the institution in record numbers.

Tulane was able to craft a ‘hero narrative’ around its recovery, communicating to its own community and the outside world that the university was standing side by side with New Orleans; the message was that both would emerge better than before.

The importance of communication during times of crisis should not be underestimated for institutional leadership. Following two violent earthquakes that hit Christchurch in September 2010 and February 2011, the University of Canterbury immediately put in place a communication strategy in which all students received personalised emails on a daily basis with support and logistics information.

"One of the key ongoing issues that it faced was to reassure its community that its campus was a safe place to be," recalled Alex Hanlon, director of learning resources at the University of Canterbury during the recovery period, especially in light of the serious aftershocks that continued months after the earthquakes themselves.

Some 25 per cent of the student population left in February 2011 and did not return. Perceptions of safety will be a challenge shared by today’s higher education sector, especially in terms of recovering international enrolment. The University of Canterbury’s approach centred around involving students themselves. "Students were given the agency to pursue projects," said Hanlon, "They naturally wanted to help and this was how the Student Volunteer Army was born." The network, whereby University members mobilised to clean up Christchurch’s silt-covered streets, continues to flourish today and is now helping those in need during the COVID-19 lockdown. Just as at Tulane, this ‘hero narrative’ became a part of rebuilding Canterbury’s fractured brand.

Recovering from our present crisis may no less involve rebuilding institutional brand, mediating messages of safety, trust and belonging. Even once the immediate crisis has subsided, anxiety will persist. A very real danger is that public anger will be levelled at East Asian students, and Chinese in particular, as occurred during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Donald Trump’s references to the ‘China virus’ portend that such blame-mongering will be an ongoing after-effect of this pandemic; it will be a duty that falls to universities to combat this on and off campus. Not least in terms of the need to recover international enrolments, it is a wise moment to harness the powerful influence of word of mouth; current students can be eloquent ambassadors for the student experience should they feel connected to and valued by an institution. 

The higher education sector is currently facing intense criticism. The COVID-19 shock has brought many existing weaknesses to the forefront. But we can wallow, or we can recover. These institutions are a backbone of society and culture. The university experience is much more than a graduation stamp. And while approaches to capital planning must become more nuanced in the future, its place-based character is integral. This is palpable at the sadness expressed by students not able to attend their campuses.

Like they have from many shocks before, our institutions can meet this challenge and reinvigorate.   

Dr Samantha Hall is a director of Campus Intuition, a consultancy assisting universities to develop a clear and in-depth understanding of campus experience.

Isabelle Taylor is Head of Research at Turnberry Consulting, and author of books including University Planning and Architecture: The Search for Perfection (Routledge 2015) and University Trends: Contemporary Campus Design (Routledge 2017).

This article is based on an extended paper, Higher Education: Recovery and Shocks, available for download from Campus Intuition.

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