Friday, August 21, 2020

Universities are the perfect hub and spoke network for viral spread

Here’s an idea. Let’s take hundreds of thousands of young people, get them to travel to another city in the country, preferably far from their home town, put them in closed rooms together for hours on end with older people, let them mix, go to bars and party. Throw in a healthy dose of foreigner students from countries all over the globe. Now after getting them all into one container, you shake this lethal cocktail, give it time to ripen, then send them all back home, just before Christmas, as the flu and other viruses peak. That’s essentially what Universities are doing around the world. You couldn’t design a better, more optimised system for viral spread, as it reaches almost every village, town and city in the country and abroad.

Why would you take such a risk? We know from recent exam results in schools, that results dog-legged up, even though the school children were not at school. We know that lectures can be online. We also know that tutorials can be held online. In fact, we know that entire degrees can be delivered online because they are, on scale. I’ve attended graduation ceremonies for years helping hand out degrees to such students.

In truth, Covid is exposing the hard reality of Higher Education, that is it mostly about hanging out with other young people. This is what administrators call the ‘student experience’. That’s fine but let’s be honest about where all that money goes. Beyond this there’s a lot of signalling – basically get a degree and put a sticker on your head saying hire me. Unfortunately, that sticker is starting to fall off as so many people have degrees, their value has been commoditised.


But let’s get back to Covid. What is happening in the US is illustrative. There is so much cash at stake, from sports, accommodation, food and other non-educational services, and the institutions are scared shitless about having to lower costs or refund students and their parents for an online only experience, that they’re ‘toggling’.

‘Toggling’ is a term invented by Bryan Alexander for switching to and fro between campus and online provision, effectively playing chicken. What many Universities are doing is saying:

It’s OK, come to Campus…

And by the way pay up…

Oh no, the students are partying and infections are rising, we have to close…

Sorry no refunds, it’s their fault…


Scott Galloway threw a grenade into this car crash, by publishing a spreadsheet that categorised institutions into those that will:


Includes the elite Universities with strong brands as they double-down and adopt some online provision.


Universities that weather the storm with good brand equity, credential-to-cost ratio, and/or endowments to weather the storm.


He describes these as having ‘comorbidities’ high tuition rates, low numbers, poor endowments.

Be challenged (he had perish!)

High tuition costs, low endowments, dependence on international students, and weak brands.

His spreadsheet is here.


I’m in favour of K12 schools returning, if carefully monitored, as it is localised. On the whole most kids attend their local school and tracing can be managed. Universities are different. It is a massive, national and evenly spread distribution network that spokes out to international locations. This is exactly what an evolving virus wants, an efficient and optimised delivery mechanism. 


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